CHAPTER THIRTY FOUR
In his darkened cell Rislo shivered uneasily, growing concerned. The harrowing wailing from the city had penetrated deep into the Tallmens’ dungeons to chill his bones. There was a tension in the air which set him at the knife edge of anxiety. The tautness in his soul seem to ebb and flow, each wave more intense than the last, as it responded to the City’s demented din. It was as if it talked to him on a deep and essential level. Something was seriously wrong in the city. The sweating giant leapt to his feet as he heard the sound of footsteps approaching his cell.
he iron door’s inspection plate slid noisily back, the shriek of dry iron on dry iron cutting through him. Two dark eyes peered into the cell.
Rislo recoiled and turned away from their piercing gaze. They were not the eyes of a Tallman. They were small, completely black and penetrated deep inside him causing him to shake uncontrollably.
Something evil studied him from beyond the door. Something which threatened almost toyed, with the underpinning of his already tenuous sanity. The inspection plate slowly screeched shut.
The lock to the door squeaked and creaked and protested before it flew open violently, slamming against the wall and raising a cloud of dust which intensified the shaft of dirty light cast into Rislo’s cell, a shaft of light which was abruptly filled by a terrifying shadow. The apparition swept into the room, his cloak flowing behind him like a river of viscous darkness.
The High Hat studied the trembling giant briefly, his eyes riveting him to the spot. Flax stared at him in disgust and hatred, he had helped the boy! Then he smiled at the shivering, ungainly wretch, a smile which threatened pain and violence and which Rislo found unbearable.
Then Flax spoke.
“Take me to your friends rebel” he commanded. The words seemed to cut into Rislo’s soul like sharp coffin nails. “… and you may go free.,” he added with a false conviction.
Rislo did not even hesitate to think. He no longer cared for anyone else but himself. He staggered quickly out into the corridor to find himself surrounded by other High Hats who levelled their guns and even more menacing grins at him.
A rope coiled itself around his neck to prevent him moving forward.
Flax caught up with Rislo and laid an icy and heavy hand on his shoulder.
“I have no axe to grind with you Tallman.” he said softly. “Just take me to the boy and this machine and I will honour my promise” he patted the Tallman’s shoulder reassuringly and added. “Forget the Tallmen, they no longer have any power over my destiny or yours my friend. You need only to listen to me.” Flax then laughed and his minions joined him in a hysterical chorus which echoed deep into the former stronghold of Rislo’s race.
Rislo smiled weakly. Despite his declining mental stability he quickly re-evaluated his situation. It didn’t matter that it would not be the Tallmen who escorted him into the underworld of Dubh in search of the field imploder. His plan needed no modification. The rope slackened at his throat and the procession of High Hats moved slowly up from the dungeons toward the Generating Chambers. Flax controlled the long striding Tallman’s momentum with the rope leash when he moved too quickly, bringing him to a choking halt as the coarse fibres cut into his larynx. The physical shock was merely a minor distraction to Rislo as he was mentally too detached to feel any real pain. His treacherous plans ran through his mind continuously, the mental rehearsal engraving itself in memory.
A twinge of confusion about the Field Imploder’s actual whereabouts worried him slightly. To his knowledge the Tallmen had retrieved it when they had captured him, but he shook off the minor problem, he had decided to take his new captors directly to the Power Reservoir which he had hidden beneath the broken floor in the house where the dimension gate there promised a short sprint to freedom.
During his trip to the Generating Chamber and Power Room, Rislo became dully aware of the absence of Tallmen. This, coupled with Flax’s statement, made him realise that the High Hats really had taken control of the city. But it had little significance to him now. He only cared for his own survival.
He felt no pity in his heart for his former comrades and brothers, their fate was irrelevant to his own destiny. Rislo’s strengthening instinct for self- preservation drove him on now, silencing his conscience. His loyalty to Jonathon and Cornelius had dissolved quickly. He did hope that Jonathon was still in the world beyond the gate as his return might cause complications if he was waiting for his own return to the prearranged rendezvous.
In the Generating Chambers Rislo was not surprised to find Tallmen still running the Field Expanders, although at gunpoint. Tallman Elders, accompanied by two in the distinctive robes of technicians was here too.
Rislo heard the conversation which was now going on between them and Flax. The technicians would accompany the two dozen or so High Hats and dismantle the machine when it was located again. They where equipped with powerful arc-lamps and power packs which they distributed amongst the High Hats as they assembled around the well-head Rislo had used so recently. Half the High Hat company climbed down the shaft, lamps ablaze, before Rislo himself was poked and prodded to follow into the now brightly lit shaft.
When he stepped out into the brightly lit area below, Rislo was greeted by the sound of gunfire. Stepping over the bones of he corpse of the whore thrown to her death during Rislo’s earlier experience here, he moved forward to watch bemused as the High Hats shot nervously at the hissing, grey mass which swirled in the deepening shadows, waiting expectantly.
The Underworld was now colder, darker more threatening than it had been before. And there where noticeably more rats, bigger rats too, human sized rats. Rislo’s frosted breath billowed out beyond the sanctuary of the arc lamp light shafts which seemed to be being absorbed into the darkness which was seemed almost solid and shimmering now.
He could feel the tension he had experienced in the dungeons here too. Only here it was greater, in fact as if the very darkness were about to come into life, that a living being was at this moment poised to overthrow the world of Dubh, attempting to break through the veil of darkness into the flesh of a Leviathan which would destroy and devour them all.
Inside the sanctuary of the arc-lamps, the long stretch of stagnant water ahead of them boiled with the frenzied thrashing of the great blind fish which, excited by the human presence, leapt furiously out of the water to snap at the High Hats who had paddled ignorantly into their domain.
Alarmed High Hats charged out of the pool rapidly as the blind fish bit chunks out of their calves and thighs, turning to fire at the now seething white mass which threw itself upon a hapless humans who had stumbled to his knees and, piece by piece, were being eaten alive.
While the High Hats wreaked their revenge upon the fish in the pools, spraying every inch with lead and throwing grenades for good measure, Rislo stood silently and watched beyond light and into the shadows.
Suddenly a chill ran down his spine as he saw, at the far extremity of his vision a familiar, silhouette within its own small sphere of light. It stood still and silent, scrutinizing Rislo. Its hunched physique with its horned head inclined toward him identified it immediately to the horrified Tallman.
Rislo screamed a warning which was lost in the uproar around him as the High Hats concerned themselves with the large white fish which now recklessly advanced across the soft, flipping and flopping, their jaws gaping for flesh and air. When Rislo looked up the apparition was gone, but above the sound of echoing gunfire he heard an impeaching and defiant howl. The giant now began to sweat with fear. It was the beast he feared most, the creature which had almost had him before and, he knew, had never trusted him for a moment. Only the presence of its adopted master Jonathon had it kept those awful jaws and claws from him. Now he had lived up to its expectations and Jonathon was not here to stop it.
The rest of the party now reassembled on the banks of the now blood red pools. The High Hat weaponry seemed to have driven off the manic fish and, apart from the occasional splash the pools seemed silent. Flax surveyed the scene, the bloody water seemed to amuse him, yet the increasingly erratic vibrations from the unstable field walls wiped the grin quickly from his face.
The jolts were stronger now, sending rubble from the roof of the underworld splashing loudly into the pools before them. The occasional, strobe like flashes of rogue energy lit up the world beyond their lamps. The light from this wild illumination seeming to cling to the ancient masonry and slick cobblestones. Here was a tantalizing glimpse of the world into which they were to venture.
Rislo peered sideways at Flax who stared angrily into the darkness. He now closed his eyes and his nostrils flared above his moistened lips as explored the cold air for the scent he sought. Cordite, ozone, the coppery scent of warm blood, the musty odour of multitude of rats, the fearful sweat of the High Hats who were anxious to conclude their business here and out there, other beasts which roamed and slid inhabited.
Flax swore in frustration and opened his eyes. Nowhere the scent of the one he sought amongst was these other powerful smells.
“Onwards!” he barked impatiently and the procession moved obediently into the blood filled pools.
A nervousness swept amongst the party as soft, submerged objects bumped against their legs evoking fear as they swam across the narrow but deep pool before them. Rislo shivered as he crossed. The monster which lurked at the foot of the pool was still there, he could feel its presence.
It moved, glided slowly to the surface and took one of the High Hats at the rear of the party in its wide jaws. The hapless straggler slipped quickly beneath the water without a sound, unmissed.
The oscillating hum of the Field Walls and the drone of the engines from the Halls of Machines was now joined again by the eerie wailing from the city itself. Although not as loud as the noise Flax had heard in the chambers of the Elders, it was enough to drown out the patter and swish of the million tiny paws that followed Flax’s party out of the pools and into the labyrinth of subterranean streets. Believing the promise of an easy escape back into the well shaft was secure behind them, the party advanced confidently.
The dark, dank and cold misty air began to swirl around them as they moved forward, a breeze at the moment, but alien to this place where the air had remained stagnant for a hundred years or more. Dust rose into spectres.
Flax moved slowly behind Rislo, flanked by his increasingly nervous High Hats whose eyes followed the thousands of scuttling, scrabbling shadows who kept pace with them just out of range of the arc-lamps.
Gone were the victorious grins they had worn after they had conquered the Tans and the Tallmen, replaced with open mouths and wide eyes as fear slowly gnawed away at their confidence. Buildings long forgotten, ancient and derelict, sprang up now on either side of them. The gaping doorways and windows revealing nothing except the increasing density of the shadows which pressed down on the dome of light generated by their lamps, which now seemed weak and inadequate like glass.
Flax halted suddenly and tasted the scent of the alien beast which emanated from the buildings on his right. He was aware too of the rolling, grey carpet of hungry rats that threatened now to encircle them in the darkness.
This single beast kept itself a fraction ahead of them. Whatever it was, it was basically human Flax perceived, although it reeked of some animal, primitive, threatening and entirely devoid of the scent of fear. Flax shrugged his shoulders, about to dismiss it as some half human relic lurking in the ruins, when a flash of automatic gunfire exploded from its position.
Screams erupted from the High Hats who fell dying in front of Flax, the echoes of the short burst of fire gave the impression to the High Hats that they were under attack from half a dozen different positions.
They began to fire indiscriminately in confusion and panic, swinging the beams of their arc-lamps around in an effort to isolate their ghostly attackers. They shot at their own shadows, at each other and at the arc-lamps themselves, thinking that the enemy would have less chance of hitting them in the dark, but forgetting in the chaos to just switch them off and disastrously ignorant of why the mass of rats around them kept their distance.
The two Tallmen technicians at the rear of the party saw their chance and threw off their robes to reveal the mirror armour of Tallmen warriors.They had been instructed by their Elders to kill Flax at the first opportunity and their laser batons began to cut down the panic stricken High Hats as they fumbled in the shadows with empty weapons and magazines.
Flax whirled around and, realising the Elders’ treachery, directed his fire at the advancing giant warriors. The din of the battle around him drowned out his angry howls as laser fire seared the air around him, filling the street with a storm of flashing light. Arc-lamps went out or fell to the ground sending beams out into the darkness or up into the air, everywhere but where they were needed.
The High Hats were in complete disarray now. Either dead or dying, fleeing or still shooting at phantoms or one another. Rislo saw his chance to flee in the mayhem too. Flax had dropped his leash to dispose of the would be Tallman assassins and Rislo took a pace forward, only to stumble as a volley of misdirected bullets thudded into his back.
He dropped to his knees and, as he did so, his eyes caught sight of a hunched lump of shadow which detached itself from the cover of the buildings on the right and hurtled toward the fray.
It crouched low, but sped forward at great pace, its steel jaws and long incisors reflecting the explosions of light around him. Rislo whimpered as he attempted to crawl away from the Turkanschoner as it made a bee-line for him, but found his way blocked by fallen High Hats and the mass of gleefully snapping rodents which now surged noisily forward.
Rislo closed his eyes and begged for another life terminating bullet before the beast reached him.