The crows were circling low above the moors. With black pinprick eyes, gleaming with small intelligence, they looked down over the grassy ground below that ran red with blood while flies swarmed thick over the sea of corpses. With great impatience, they waited for the living to part so that they could come down and feast. The birds would have to wait a little longer, for although the Lord of the dark riders had won the final battle from his enemies, he still had yet to claim his price.
A line of long wooden pikes had been raised opposite the outer castle wall of Dagonmourn on the dark Lord's orders. On each and every one of them, a head was mounted. Dipped in tar to keep them from rotting, the unfortunate victims stared blindly up at the sky with their mouths gaping wide, frozen in their final gaps before the swords had so cruelly cut short their lives. Men, women and even children, all united in a macabre celebration of death.
Lord Dagonmourn stood on the battlement with the last of his men. His heart wept when he recognized the tar-blackened faces that stared back mournfully at him in silence. Oh how he cursed the day that he had first heard those wretched drums. Even now, he could hear them pounding in the distance, a devil's heartbeat that echoed over the moors, spreading this great evil over his land.
"Did you come to talk terms, my lord?" The master of the dark riders called out from below. "Or did you just come out to admire the view?" A wide grin, obnoxious and vile, spread over his lips as the dark haired youth turned his gaze to the east. The first glow of morning dawned at the horizon. "Isn't it just wonderful?" He said mockingly. "A fresh start of a brand new day. The birds are singing. The smell of wet grass is in the air, and then the most wonderful sight of your incompetent minions, dead and rotting. Why, the very sight of it almost makes me want to burst out in a song!" He laughed.
Lord Dagonmourn was trembling of rage. "They were just servants! Unarmed. Innocent women and children. You've promised them mercy!"
"You didn't keep your side of the bargain, so why should I?" The smile disappeared from his adversary's face. "You people are so dim that you don't seem to be capable to understand the concept of an agreement. Let me explain it for the zillionth time. You give me what I want, and I give you what you want in return." His voice was low and threatening. "So, let's try again. You give me Dagonmourn, and I give you this."
A woman was dragged forward by the riders. She was stripped down to her white undergarments, and even that was obscenely torn, revealing her right breast and the red bruises on her fair skin. Her long golden hair framed her pale face in wild, wind swept manes. The very sight of the wretched woman turned Meagon's heart to ice. His enemy had captured lady Gwendolyn.
"You monster! What did you do to my wife?"
"Me? Nothing of course." The dark lord made a face of pure disgust. "Such a bestial thought that I would somehow find pleasure in bedding an inferior species. I was planning to give her to my troops. These soldiers have a far lower standard then me…and with such a pretty specimen like her…let's say it's good for morale."
Lord Meagon's grip on his sword tightened when he saw the dark lord stroke his wife's tear-strained face. Although the touch was almost tender, she flinched. "You keep your hands off her or I swear…"
"Maegon!" Lady Gwedolyn sobbed. "He has our children! Please don't let him harm them!"
"Oh yes that's right, your kids." The dark lord flashed him that despicable smile again. "What are they called …it's on the tip of my tongue…Rob-Robert, yes, and Walter, the two precious little lordlings. To be honest, I thought I've lost them till my riders caught them shivering behind the bushes like two frantic baby fawns."
A snap of the fingers and the two boys were presented to him. There was a change on lord Dagonmourn's face, a look of pure horror and pain that the Dark lord found most satisfying, when the father noticed the hangman's nooses dangling around their little necks.
"Viper!" Meagon seethed, balding his fists. "How can you stoop so low? To use children as your shield!"
"Oh believe me, I can stoop even lower. If you don't give me what I want." The Dark lord taunted. He turned to his handsmen. "Get them ready. That tall tree over there will do. Make sure it's in plain view of the lord of Dagonmourn. I want him to be able to enjoy the whole show, till the very last spastic jolt."
"Dear God of the Salted Earth, no! Please don't! Don't hurt them!" Lady Gwendelyn cried out and fought her captors like a wounded lioness to get to her children. She was silenced with vicious blows on her face.
"Please…no…have mercy." Meagon muttered. "Not them. Not my family."
"Then lower the bloody drawbridge!" The Dark lord yelled back. "Hand Dagonmourn over to me and your wretched offspring shall be spared. If not…watch them dance with their little feet kicking the air."
"You don't understand…I can't forsake my duty. I've sworn an oath to protect this castle till my very last breath."
"And what about your house? Don't you have a duty as a husband or a loving father? Do you really want to see my men kill them, hmm? Look them in the eyes and tell them in their face that your honor is worth more than their lives!"
The lord of the Dagonmourn stood on the walls of his castle, his face red with anger and his eyes filled with tears, but otherwise silent.
"Very well." The Dark lord turned to the children. "Sorry kids! It seems that your daddy don't really care that much about you after all, tough luck." He gave his men the signal, and the two of them were led to an old oak tree. The ends of the ropes were tossed over a low hanging branch and two steppenhorns were brought forward. The children were made to stand on the back of the animals, while the Dark riders pulled tight the ropes.
"On my signal." The Dark lord ordered, ignoring the heartbreaking wails of the boy's desperate mother. "Let the birds ride and the little lordlings fly."
"Wait!" Lord Dagonmourn shouted. His chin was quivering. "Spare their lives! Please!"
The Dark lord stopped his men. "You'll let us in?"
Lord Dagonmourn nodded, defeated. "I'll hand Dagonmourn to you."
The oldest of lord Dagonmourn's sons Robert was little more than a child, but instead of pleading for his own life he shouted bravely at his father. "No! Don't hand the castle over to him. He's lying father. He killed ser Bleakbeak and cut off his arm when he offered him his hand. You can't trust him!"
The child's appeal came as a surprise to him. Annoyed, the Dark lord turned to the defiant youth. "Shut up! You want to die little boy?" He whispered maliciously.
Hot tears pricked in his eyes. "You can't scare me. I am not afraid of you." Little Robert answered. He bit in his lower lip till it drew blood.
"Is that so." The smile that the Dark lord gave him sent cold shivers down his spine. "That's a brave lad, but what about your little brother? Are you brave for him as well?" He slapped hard on the back of the steppenhorn, and the animal bolted in fright. The support fell away beneath little Walder's feet and he was left dangling in the air. His tear streaked face turned blue as he was strangled. It abruptly silenced his pitiful cries for his mother.
If young Robert had a sword, he would have used it to cut down the tyrant. But he was helpless, and had to watch how the light slowly died in his younger sibling's eyes. After a while, Walder stopped struggling, and left his arms swinging limp by his side. His mother's pleads finally stopped, and a mournful silence fell over the moors.
The Dark lord calmly walked over to the last remaining offspring. He looked up at the boy's father, and waited.
"No more." Lord Dagonmourn's voice was that of a broken man. "No more bloodshed…I'll lower the bridge. You and your bloodthirsty band of murders can take over my castle. Do with me whatever you want, but please, spare my firstborn. He's the last of my blood."
"A very wise decision. I am sure your poor wife is grateful."
"No father…No." Robert was trembling and his heart was pained with grief and a deep sense of loss. His brother's eyes were still open, and they stared at him as if to question why his older brother couldn't save him from this horrible fate. His mother was on her knees in front of the tyrant, her white dress smeared with dirt and blood, staring vacantly at her dead child. "Please. Don't kneel for him." The young lordling begged.
"You're a brave boy Robert. A very good boy, but I have lived long enough." Lord Dagonmourn took out his sword and tossed it over the parapet before he turned to the Dark lord. "I offer myself in his place. Spare him. Spare my wife. That's all I ask."
The boy knew that that horrible decision would seal his father's fate. The monster would never let him live. His father had always taught him to be brave, to protect his family and his honor. For the men of the Salted Earth, there were no things of greater value. So he did what he had to do. He took in a deep breath, and cast his eyes over the castle where he had spent his happy childhood for a final time. He watched his father, standing on the battlements, defeated and broken. Then he closed his eyes, and jumped to his death.
"For the last time Doctor, I don't need your help." Ser Titanis was as stubborn as he was fixated on his duty. "As soon as we reach the middle road, we will part our ways. My men and I will go back down to the south, while you and your foolish companions proceed your journey to the north. I will no longer stand in the way of your death wish." The bitterness in the lord commander's words was not hard to miss. Even though the Doctor had saved his life, the fact that the Master had compelled him to forsake his oath still stung him like a sore wound.
"At least take one of our steppenhorns." The Doctor offered. They had left the campsite early in the morning and were making their way through the muddy woodlands, following the trail back to the spot where they had left the main road. "It's still a two days ride to the Midwall. Six if you go on foot entirely."
"If you can still find them, you can keep your wretched birds." Ser Titanis replied. "Not even the fiercest sabertooth or the most brutal pack of terrorhawks will be as perilous as the monsters who stalk the haunted lands around Dagonmourn. I wish you the best of luck. You lot will need it since you absolutely seem to lack any common sense."
Gellard, who had walked up the front of the group, was the first to stumble on the dead animals. One of them was the riding-bird the Master had beheaded, the other was Jenkin's steppenhorn. Both were already wriggling with maggots and had turned stiff in the limbs. Deeply worried by this discovery, the two Saltmen started searching for their brothers in arms, but both Jenkin and Olaf seemed to have disappeared.
Donna's stomach turned when she saw how the last bird from ser Titanis' group had been viciously ripped apart. "It looks like it was mauled by a pack of hungry wolves."
"Not wolves." The Doctor crouched down beside the dead steppenhorn and took out his glasses to study it more closely. "There are no wolves are here. It wasn't a large carnivorous bird either. Look at these marks. This animal was killed with a sword or a dagger." There was a path of deep crimson that spread out underneath the carcass. Carefully, the Doctor dipped his finger in the stain and sniffed, rubbing the sticky fluid between his fingers.
"Why would any of my lads butcher a perfectly healthy riding animal?" Ser Titanis muttered. "It makes no sense."
"No ser, it's not them. It's this place." Gellard said, remembering the whispers. "When I was lost in the woods to get help…I heard these…these voices. They put horrible visions in my head and drove fear in my heart. I was wielding my sword, defending myself against unseen monsters till the Doctor found me and brought me back to my senses. What if…Jenkin and Olaf had heard them too…and were driven so mad by them that they took out their swords to fight each-other…"
"That's pure nonsense!" Ser Titanis spat. "The sworn brothers of the Midwall will never turn on each-other! We are men, not beasts!"
"And yet, this blood does not come from your riding animal." The Doctor said. "Saltman's blood has been spilled here."
Ser Titanis tightened his jaw as he digested the bad news. "This is all your doing Doctor!" He fumed. "If it wasn't for your selfish quest these young lads would never have set foot on this cursed land. If anything has happened to them –"
"Oh stop it! It wasn't the Doctor's fault." Donna defended him.
"I'm sorry." The Doctor admitted.
"Why do you apologize?" Donna protested. "You can't get blamed for everything that goes wrong here. It's these woods. This place. Like Gellard said, it does things to people."
"But I led them here." The Doctor looked ser Titanis straight in the eyes. "And I promise I will do anything, absolutely anything I can to get them out."
A bitter laugh that mocked the Doctor's very sincerity suddenly came from the Master. "And so the Doctor's conscience has spoken. You may now be reassured about the fate of your two idiot minions." He crossed his arms and smiled joylessly. "Oh don't look so doubtful Redbeard. You have to put some faith in him for his magic to work. We all do. Our saintly savior has never let anyone down. You will be saved, even if the good Doctor has to drag you to your own redemption, kicking and screaming."
"Don't you ever know when to shut your gob?" Donna told him angrily, but the Master just ignored her and kept laughing.
"This blood trail is heading north, just like our yellow brick road." The Master pointed out. "If you want to known what happened to your men, you have to venture further then anyone of the Midwall has ever gone before. To a dark place, where there will be monsters."
"I cannot return to the Midwall without them. These men have sworn their loyalty to my house, and I have sworn to protect them." Ser Titanis said with grim conviction.
"Then you have to come with us!" Donna opted. "If we all stick together we'll be all a whole lot safer, right?"
The Doctor nodded. "What do you say ser Titanis? Would you let us help?"
After a long moment of hesitation, ser Titanis finally gave in.
The road wound down the hillside, out of the woodlands and into a valley covered in wild scrubland. Donna was relieved to finally leave the woods behind. Too many bad things had happened in the shadow of those tall dark trees. The wide open space that lay before her seemed far less threatening, and for the first time since they have left the Midwall stronghold, she actually felt a little bit at ease.
"This doesn't look too bad." She told ser Titanis. "When the sun comes out, this place is actually quite beautiful. From those scary stories you've told me, I was half expecting to step into some kind of horror version of Mordor." She noticed the anxious look on the Salt lord's face. "Don't you worry about those boys. The Doctor will find them. You're not the first person that he has helped before. He's been doing this for ages, and got pretty good at it."
"Is that what that weasel companion of yours was going on about?" The Salt lord gestured in the direction of the Master. "The Doctor has helped him too?"
"Oh don't drag him into this. The Master's a special case." Donna muttered. "I've not known him for very long, but he and the Doctor…it's a long story, but it doesn't mean he isn't grateful…I guess."
"My lady, I've lived a long life, and in my days I have seen and known all sorts of men. Some people just don't want to be saved. As for this land, it may look peaceful on the surface, but underneath this thin layer of life, it's dead and rotting." He pointed out the passing fields with borders marked by crumbling walls. "This used to be the Valley of Abundance. Fields of golden grain stretched out as far as the eyes could see, with vast herds of ramhorns and cattlebacks roaming the hillside. This patch of land, blessed with plenty of rain and sunshine, used to feed the millions in the colonies of the south. Now it lies abandoned. The rich soil left bare to be washed away by the elements."
"No one lives in this area anymore?" Donna asked.
"Aye." Ser Titanis nodded. "Hundreds of farms and villages are all emptied out, abandoned by the living."
"Why did everyone leave?" Something that lord Titanis had told her came to her mind. "Were they fleeing for the army of the Dark Lord?"
"My grandfather was lord of the Midwall when he witnessed the great exodus from the Northlands, directly after the fall of Dagonmourn." Ser Titanis answered grimly. "What came to him for shelter and protection was an endless procession of wretched beings, dying of cold, hunger and disease. Those poor people had lost so much, and yet they were the lucky ones. Even before Dagon's spirit was released from the tomb, the Dark lord and his army had purged this land with fire and blood. Entire villages were destroyed, the inhabitants massacred, and the once fertile fields burnt down till the earth itself turned to black ashes. There is no real life left in these lands. Only echoes. Only ghosts."
Not everyone was gone. Donna remembered the wild man who had attacked the Doctor two nights before. She was just about to mention him to ser Titanis when on the far horizon the outlines of a small town came in sight. The companions were in desperate need of provisions. Most of their stuff had disappeared with the ridingbirds after they fled into the woods, while ser Titanis and Gellard have left theirs on the bottom of the swamp.
The Doctor stopped and turned to the Master. "What do you think?"
"We've half a loaf of bread left for the five of us." The other Timelord shrugged. "So either we go hungry tonight or we go down into that village and see what we can scavenge to fill up on supplies."
The Doctor answered him with a look of hesitation.
"Oh come on." The Master teased. "You're not scared of these invisible bogeymen and salt phantoms, are you? Are you the same man who stood alone against the formidable Dalek army? The man who is known as the destroyer of Gallifrey?" He added tauntingly before he marched up to the front of the company to lead the way.
They reached the town in the late afternoon. Traveling with the Doctor, Donna had seen abandoned and ruined places before. On the icy planet of the Oods, the Ood's cities they had encountered had been little more than frozen ruins, half buried by huge mounts of snow. She had been inside the Great Library, an entire planet with continents filled with books, but with no one left to read them. The feeling of goose bumps crawling over her skin when they entered the town was a familiar one, but was nonetheless alarming. Everywhere she looked, there were traces of daily human activity. Loafs of what seemed to be freshly baked bread were left to cool on the windowsill of a bakery. A wagon filled with hay, stood unattended in the middle of the street. Someone has dropped a basket full of red fruit on the ground and when they passed by a blacksmith, she noticed that the fire was still burning in the forge.
"I thought you said these towns were all abandoned." Donna gazed at ser Titanis. She touched a half-shaped metal rod that lay on top of the anvil. "It's still warm." She muttered with a puzzled look.
"It's like everybody has just fled out of town, and have left everything behind in their haste." Gellard noted uneasily.
"That's impossible. No one lives beyond the Midwall. The last of the Saltmen to leave the North went decades ago." Ser Titanis muttered.
"But ser, look at this place." Gellard picked up the fruit from the ground. "These appleplums are still fresh. There must be farmers around who picked these from the trees, and someone must have baked those breads."
"Someone did. Only not recently."
All except for the Master turned their heads to the Doctor in surprise.
"It's a kind of time quarantine. Like a separation from the timeline, enforced by distortions in the space-time continuum, which is created by accelerating the particles within the forcefield to near lightspeed. I think the term in Earth physics should be time dilation." The Doctor tried to explain to the others in his usual overly enthusiastic way. "Einstein was the first to find out about it. Donna, did I ever tell you that that guy is a true genius?"
"Sorry, but I lost you right after quarantine." Donna replied.
"Quarantine?" The Doctor huffed with clear disappointment. "Well that's quite early. Blimey…" He scratched the back of his neck. "Didn't they teach you these basic physics stuff in school?"
"Oh excuse me my Lord Snob, but not everyone went to private school." Donna snapped back.
"Sorry Doctor, but were you trying to explain something here?" Ser Titanis noted, still puzzled. "I thought you were speaking in some kind of mystical tongue."
"Oh tisk tisk." The Master muttered, shaking his head in dismay. "Doctor, you've obviously traveled alone with me for far too long. Not everyone is your intellectual peer, remember? You have your humanoid pets to take care of now. Better dumb down your language or their heads might explode. Here, let me try." He cleared his throat and turned to Donna. "It's a big time BUBBLE." He said loudly to her, accentuating every word as if speaking to a six year old and drawing out a circle in the air. "Time passes slower inside than it does outside. Understood?"
"Leave her alone, she is not stupid." The Doctor argued.
"Yeah. What do you think I am, some kind of simpleton?" Donna muttered, but secretly feeling relieved that she finally got an idea what they have walked into.
"A time bubble?" Gellard repeated, still confused.
"This entire town is placed outside time. That's why the fire is still burning in the smithy and the bread is still warm. Time has been forced to a stand still in this place." The Doctor explained, as he looked around, a scowl appeared on his face.
"But…how?" Donna asked. "Just assuming that it wasn't some kind of wacky accident. How could this happen?"
"There was only one race in the entire universe capable of meddling with time at such a scale." A worried look flashed in the Doctor's eyes. "My race of people. Which means that the Timelords have been here."
"The Timelords? But…you're a Timelord." Donna noted, not without bafflement.
"They are not all like me." The Doctor replied, turning his eyes away from her almost shamefully. "I know what you're thinking, but we Timelords are not saints. We were an ancient race, the oldest in the universe, we should have been as wise as we were powerful. But at the end of a great conflict against the Dalek Empire, in the very last of the Timewars, the horrors of war had hardened and corrupted them and had replaced wisdom with madness. The Timelords have become so desperate that they would sacrifice anything and anyone, just to win the war." He paused, swallowing hard. "So many mistakes have been made." He whispered mournfully. "So many lives have been destroyed. You have no idea, how much evil has been done, just to ensure Gallifrey's survival."
"Are you telling me that the Timelords did this?" Donna said, putting one and one together. "All those horrible stories about the Dark riders from the south, those were your people?"
"They were Rassilon's men." The Master stared back at the Doctor, his eyes unblinking.
Donna felt her stomach turn. "What happened to the villagers?"
The Doctor just looked up grievously at her.
"Oh why do we keep gibbering about the past when we have the present to worry about?" The Master interrupted, he snatched the appleplum off Gellard's hand and took a bite. "We're here for provisions! So let's go find some. I for one don't want to be stuck in this place when it gets dark." Without taking further notice of the others, he spun around and disappeared inside one of the abandoned dwellings next to the bakery.
"What does he mean? What happens after sunset?" Gellard asked nervously, looking at the Doctor for answers.
"This place is sealed away from normal time, which means nothing that belongs here gets out. Ever." The Doctor's face turned serious. "We need to leave."
The human companions soon discovered what had happened to the missing villagers when they left the town. In a walled in orchard not far away from the last farmhouse of the small community, they found them, hanging from the thickest tree branches like a macabre crop of fruit. Men, women, and children. Houseflies were swarming over them, forming a black shroud that took to the air when the Doctor's company approached.
Donna had already seen some pretty horrible things in her life. Traveling with the Doctor had allowed her to steal a glimpse of the universe, showing her not only the divine, but also the truly ugly, but what she now witnessed left her completely speechless. This was beyond the horrors of the carnivorous shadows in Great Library, or the heart-wrenching fate of the captive Oods. This…was monstrous.
"What dark and soulless creature has done this?" Ser Titanis whispered. "An entire village. Not even the little ones are spared." Fuel by rage and an overwhelming sense of injustice, the Saltman commander of the Midwall seized his sword, his eyes burning for retribution. "Come out you cowards!" He bellowed. "Come fight me, man to man!"
"Put back your sword ser Titanis! There is no need for it." The Doctor told him.
"But they have butchered my people! The lives of the innocent which I have sworn to defend."
"They are no longer here. Those who are responsible have not been here for the last 100 years. These people have been dead ever since the dark riders went through this town."
"But…that cannot be true…look at them…their flesh is still on their bones."
"Listen to me. Time does not flow normally in here. Instead of streaming like a river, it trickles down slowly, like water of melting ice." The Doctor explained. "The lives of these people are stagnant. They are frozen in time."
Donna stared at the victims. Their faces were distorted in agony, capturing their final struggle. Their eyes were open, drawn up to heaven. Maggots wriggled out of their eye corners and fell like fat teardrops down their hollow cheeks.
A cold chill went pass her, and it made her turn. That was when she saw the Master. For a moment she thought that the hideous scene in the orchard did not affect him. His dark eyes were cast to the distance, beyond the fruit trees with their horrific crop, his gaze neither denying nor acknowledging the existence of the blue-green corpses. But then she realized that he was staring at an old oaktree that stood further away from the others. It was the only tree in the entire field that did not have any dead people in it, but its bark was black as if scorched by fire and there was not a single leaf left on its twisted branches.
"What? What is it? What do you see?" She recognized that look on his face. She had seen it before. In the river, after he had pulled her out of the ice-cold stream. It was that same frozen expression of terror.
The Master broke off his gaze. "We should be going." He answered abruptly, and turned away from her.
"But… we can't just let these people hang here." Donna protested.
"Surely not! We must take them down and give them a proper burial so their souls may rest in the black soil of the salted earth." Ser Titanis said determinedly, and he reached for his dagger. "Come on boy, help me up there." He was about to climb on the back of his page to reach out and cut down one of the victims when the Doctor stopped him.
"No ser Titanis." He warned. "We must leave them be."
"And let the wild birds feast on them?" Ser Titanis objected. "Surely even your merciless race knows that one should respect the dead?"
"Doctor, why can't we bury them?" Donna asked.
The Doctor had no time to explain. "Look, the Master is right. We should be going. Quickly, before the sun goes down." He almost literally pulled his companions away from the trees, out of the orchard and back on to the main road.
"The Master is right?" Donna blurted. "Oh now it's getting really creepy. You never say he's right. And why do we need to hurry? Hurry to go where?" She then caught the Master glimpsing back over his shoulder as they hurried along. Her stomach suddenly turned into a tight knot. It was one thing to see the Doctor nervous, but the Master? She had never seen that barmy sociopath so unnerved before. Being absolutely frightening because he was busying himself with cutting up a room full of violent French monks with a blunt potato peeler, yes, but him being frightened?
"Can you please tell me what is going on here?" Donna asked, rushing after the Doctor.
"Yes I can." He told her, leading the group down the dirt road in a quick pace. "And as soon as we get out of here, I will."
It was near nightfall when they finally stopped and made camp for the night. By that time, Donna was exhausted. They've been running up a steep hill for almost a full hour and she could hardly feel her legs anymore. Thankfully, Gellard and ser Titanis were made of stronger stuff and volunteered to gather the firewood. A quick whizz with the Doctor's sonic and they could all sit down and relax their aching muscles.
"So." She said, when she huddled up closer the comfortable fire. "You are going to explain a few things to us?"
The Doctor stopped poking a stick in the flames and gazed up at her with a distracted look on his face.
"The village. Dead people in the trees. Time bubble." Donna reminded him crankily.
"Oh that." Alertness returned to his eyes. "I was trying to get you out before the diminished solar energies from the Mourning star would slow down time inside the zone to a near stand still. That would allow further corrosion of the time stream and make greater rifts appear, exposing the whole quarantine area to the dangers of inter-dimensional space."
Ser Titanis and Gellard, and even Donna were looking at the Doctor as if he had just grown an extra head.
"Ah, sorry." The Doctor racked his brain for a better way to explain it to them. "Let's try again. The time bubble is a weak-point in time because it runs so incredibly slow. It is highly susceptible to tearing and when that happens, that rift in the time vortex will allow what ever lives in between the dimensions to enter the quarantine zone."
"And I guess that's a bad thing?" Donna noted. "Why do I even bother to ask? With you it's always a bad thing. What exactly lives between dimensions? Inter-dimensional space rats?"
"They're called shadow reapers." The Master explained, finally breaking his silence. "Whenever time is wounded, these creatures appear. They come to clean and to disinfect the mess."
"What do you mean by that?" Donna asked.
"Let's just say they we and they really shouldn't mix." The Master replied, giving her a sinister grin. "Luckily for us they are sealed inside the time bubble, or this entire land shall turn red."
A sudden cry cut through the silence and made all of them jump in fright.
"What was that!" Ser Titanis spat. His hand tightened on the hilt of his sheathed sword. "It came from the village."
"There are still people alive in there." Gellard whispered.
"They are not alive. Neither are they dead." The Doctor said solemnly. "Time is all muddled up within that place. There is no rational sequence of events. No cause and effect. To those who are trapped inside, this means that they can be alive after they have been murdered, and dead while they are still alive."
"If that's true, than those poor souls are cursed, and condemned to the deepest pits of hell." Ser Titanis said in utter horror.
The Doctor stared into the fire. The shrill cries that continued to echo through the valley came like a punishment to his already burdened conscience. "I am sorry, but there's nothing we can do to help them."
"Why not?" Gellard pushed on. "You said you were a Timelord, and that cursed prison is a creation of your tribe. Why can't you just undo this great evil?"
"Because their fate is a fixed point in time. Am I right Doctor?" Donna said, recognizing the look of desperation on the Doctor's face that she had seen once before, in the glow of the fires of Pompeii. "He can't change it. If he could he would have done something already, but he just…he can't."
The Doctor looked gratefully at her. "If we enter the zone, we will make a breach in the barrier and the shadow creatures will be unleashed into our universe. No one, nothing in the whole of creation, will be safe."
"And what should we do? Just sit here and listen to their dying screams and let those nightmare monsters slaughters them?" Ser Titanis spat.
Above the doomed the town, strange lights appeared in the sky, the clouds split open and a horde of monstrous men sized bats soared down to the orchard and dived between the trees. Terrifying howls came from the cursed dead as they were picked from the branches one by one and ripped apart by the murderous creatures.
"I can't take this anymore!" Gellard burst out, shaking his head fervently. "We have to do something!"
"Then I suggest you cover your ears." The Master told him. "Because let me tell you, this is going to go on the whole night."
Gellard had enough of this torment. Frustrated, he jumped up and walked over to the Master. For a moment it looked like he was going to punch him in the face, but then his rage subsided and he kicked the cinders into the fire instead before turned and left the camp.
"Oh what the hell is wrong with you?" Donna snapped at the Master. "Can't you see the poor kid is terrified?"
"And that is my concern because…?" The Master replied with a smug grin on his face. He fished Gellard's ration of turnips out of the campfire and removed the blackened peel before stuffing it in his mouth.
"I can totally understand that some of you Timelords can be complete selfish gits, present company included." Donna told the Doctor as she gave the Master a nasty look. "But what I can't understand is why they cursed this entire town with a hole into another hell dimension. Was killing these poor people not enough?"
"The Timelords uses this weak spot to summon their military forces. This town was selected as a regroup station. What happened to the people was just collateral damage to them."
"But you guys have your Tardis-ses-zes." Unsure what the plural for Tardis was supposed to be. "You have your great time machines. You should be able to hop over to any planet you like without punching a demon-infested hole into the universe."
"You don't understand." The Doctor said grimly. "The army that was assembled here was not an army that should have existed in the first place."
Donna looked puzzled. "Sorry, come again?"
The Doctor was reluctant to go on, He was about to reveal the darkest secrets of the Timelords to his companions that he himself had tried so very hard to forget.
"Tell us Doctor." Ser Titanis urged. His grey eyes scrutinized him deeply. "I for one need to know why this horrible fate has befallen us. Why did your people, who you claim are the wisest and oldest race in the universe, commit such atrocities against mine?"
The Doctor looked over at the Master, who just sat there silently waiting for him to continue, his face devoid of any emotions.
"Very well then. I will tell you." The Doctor sighed, searching for strength. "At the very end of the time war it was becoming more and more evident to the Timelord high council that we were loosing the battle. By that time, millions of lives have already been lost. The mighty Timelord army and its alliance of seven enlightened races were completely almost annihilated. The once mighty military force was reduced to a few desperate legions of mutilated soldiers. Living and un-living, they were send back in time again and again to suffer endless deaths in a desperate attempt to change the outcome of the war. It was in that darkest hour of our existence when the Daleks threatened to destroy Gallifrey with their mutated army of monsters called the Skaro Degradations, and that the Horde of Travesties was battling at our gates, that the Timelord council decided to resurrect the Nightmare Child."
The Master glimpsed at the Doctor, only for half a second or so, before he quickly returned his gaze to the flames. No-one, not even the Doctor noticed it, but Donna did.
"Wait a minute." Donna argued. "They sent a child to fight the Daleks?"
"Oh no. No. He was not just a child. A resurrected Timelord. The first one who was selected to be brought back from the grave."
"You mean like a zombie or a ghost?"
"Worse. It was said that the council had brought back a child with no soul. A creature that only knew bloodlust and warfare, and had no knowledge of empathy or remorse. He was a monster, and therefore the perfect weapon against the Skaro's forces. At that point, the excess manipulation of time has led to the whole of the conflict to be time-locked. Starved from fresh recruits in our own timeline, the high counsel devised the abdominal plan to abduct warriors from other dimensions to fight their war. They created a new, deadly army. An army that should not have existed, consisting of millions of soldiers who should have never lived. By corrupting the Eye of Harmony they ripped holes in the fabric of reality to let them through, and they crowned the Nightmare Child king of this demon Army of Meanwhiles and Never-Weres."
The Doctor paused. A deep sense of loss washed over him. After all these years of living, of running away and hiding from the past, the memory of the final days of his doomed race was still haunting him. Donna took his hand and gave a light squeeze. "Go on."
"I don't know what happened next." The Doctor admitted with guilt in his voice. "I wasn't there at the time, because…because I've fled. But it was said that the Nightmare Child defeated the Hordes of Skaro in a battle that turned the water in all the great rivers of Gallifrey into blood. The Daleks retreated, but for this war to end, the Timelords knew that they needed an even greater weapon, something so dangerous and powerful that they themselves feared to unleash into this world. It was hidden in the Hydra constellation, in the eye of the sky serpent, in the solar system of the Mourning star. On one of its rock-based planet named Saltsea, lay buried the deepest, darkest secret from the time of the creation of the Timelords. The counsel sent out the Nightmare Child and his demon army to collect it."
"The Dark Lord and his riders who slaughtered the poor villagers." Donna gasped, finally getting the entire picture now. "They were sent here by the Timelords to get to the tomb of Dagonmourn."
The Doctor gazed into the fire, his eyes shimmering with great remorse. "Ser Titanis, you and your people have no idea how truly remarkable, and how important you are. The Saltmen were not created by ancient Gods. They were created by the Timelords. You see, the wisest of my ancestors have long foreseen the fall of their own kind and have cloned your race to populate this particular place and time. They have instilled in your DNA the very traits of honor and servitude to make you the perfect guardians of Dagonmourn. Without you, the destructive power that lay dormant beneath the stones of the Hill of Sorrow would have easily fallen into the wrong hands. It is because of you and your kind's continues sacrifice that this universe had been safe for so long."
"But…then we have failed." Ser Titanis said, realizing what this meant. "The castle of Dagonmourn was sacked by the dark Lord and his riders centuries ago."
"That's only what your legend tells you. But the Nightmare Child never returned to the Cruciform. He and his army were lost in this quest, and vanished from Timelord history. The high council never got their hands on their ultimate weapon, forcing them to take yet another desperate measure. They brought back our creator, a powerful Timelord named Rassilon, and in the final hours of madness, they followed their unscrupulous leader to prepare for the Ultimate Sanction in which the whole of creation was to be sacrificed for the destruction of the Daleks and the preservation of the Timelord race." The Doctor paused, an expression of overwhelming grief crossed his face. "I stopped them. I stopped them all, destroying all Timelords and all Daleks alike. Because I had to…" He shut his eyes. He could still see it, the flames that consumed Gallifrey and turned everything he loved into ashes. The apocalyptic inferno in the sky as the imperial Dalek fleet of millions was destroyed. "After that, for a long time, I thought that was it. That was the end…I was the only Timelord left in existence."
"But you're not the last." Donna told him. "The Master is still around."
The Doctor's expression darkened. "He is not the only one who came back from the Timewar."
"You mean…Rassilon came back as well."
The Doctor nodded. "He's not yet corporal, but his presence is here. I can feel it. The Watcher's white point star has brought us to Saltsea for a reason."
"Doctor, what exactly is buried there underneath Dagonmourn?" Ser Titanis asked. "What is the great Timelord doomsday device?"
"No one knows. Only the ancients knew what was hidden there, and they took that secret with them to their graves. All we had left were stories, passed on through generations, told by the Timelord elders at bedtime to scare the children of Gallifrey into being good. And after the Timelords were gone, the stories themselves became myths and legends, told by the surviving races to their own children to live on while the true meaning became lost."
That night, after all of them had turned to bed, Donna could not catch her sleep, but it was not the icy screams of the undead villagers that kept her awake.
For no matter how hard she tried, she could not get the stories of Ser Titanis out of her head…nor could she forget the vivid look in the Master's eyes when the Doctor had mentioned the Nightmare Child.
It was long after midnight when Donna's bladder urged her to leave the warmth of her makeshift moss and straw bed. She stumbled into the bushes behind the clearing, making sure not to wake the Doctor and the others. After she had done her business, and was about to go back to the campsite, she suddenly heard a twig snap on the forest floor behind her. Spooked by the sound, she wheeled around. Her eyes sought blindly in the darkness.
"Who was that?" She called out with her heart beating in her throat.
A shadow appeared from behind the trees and stepped into the moonlight. She let out a sigh of relief when she realized that it was him.
"Gosh! You really freaked me out. I thought it was one of those bat-creatures coming for me."
"That's a moronic thought." The Master noted. "The Doctor did explain to you that the shadow creatures can't get out, unless you damage the shield by entering the area first. The village is miles away."
"Well thank you for telling me that." She realized that she was getting agitated with him within less than 2 seconds. Must be a new record. "What the heck are you doing here?"
"Sleep eludes me." The Master explained, gazing up absentmindedly at the star lit sky through a gap in the forest canopy. "I wanted to be left alone to think."
"I couldn't sleep either." She admitted to him. "I mean, who can right? In a horrible place like this."
"Well…I could point out ser Titanis to prove you wrong. He's currently snoring like a grunting starwhale in mating season. I swear if I've stayed a moment longer my eardrums would have split." The joke came with a not too unfriendly smile. It took her by surprise. He had never been even remotely nice to her. Not since he saved her from her public execution in 18th century France. In hindsight, even that was more of an involuntary act than a thoroughly thought through good deed.
"Something on your mind?" The Master noted, lifting an eyebrow at her.
"Uhm yes." Donna replied, quickly regaining her wits. There were indeed a few things that she was left wondering about. If she was lucky enough tonight to get a friendly smile out of him, maybe this was the right time to ask some questions. Who knows, she might even get an honest answer back. "I was wondering about what happened today. Back in the orchard, you seemed a little distracted."
"You would rather have me gawking at that macabre graveyard display, like you lot?" He grinned.
"No. No, that's not what I meant." She sputtered. What did she exactly want to say? She was never this nervous when she was talking to the Doctor, but with him…It was like the guy was constantly trying to dissect her with his eyes. "There was this oak tree in the back of the garden. I know you saw something there. Something that you've seen before, when you dragged me out of that icy river." She locked her gaze on him. The dark of his pupils reflected the moonlight. "What was it that you saw?" She asked, pushing the question out in one breath.
"Nothing." His voice reverted back to his usual cold hostility towards her. "Nothing that concerns you."
"You know I didn't slip and fell. I was pulled down. There was something in that river that grabbed hold of my ankle and tried to drown me. You saw it happen." She paused. "Why didn't you tell the Doctor?"
"I said it was nothing!" The Master said stubbornly.
"I saw you cut it with your sword! There was blood on the blade."
The Master clenched his jaw and swallowed hard, his cold eyes blazing.
"Why?" Donna pushed on, realizing that she was really on to something. "Why don't you want the Doctor to know? What are you hiding from him?"
A dark shadow passed over the Master's face as if the sun was suddenly blocked out by storm clouds. "The Doctor!" He shouted. "Why does everybody always have to drag the Doctor into my affaires?" A mad look appeared in his eyes that made Donna back away from him quickly. "He is NOT the center of this universe and he does NOT play God over my existence!"
"I've never said that he did." Donna tried, frightened by his mad outburst. "Honestly…He's only trying to help."
"Oh Donna Noble. I know your kind. I've met one of those human female companion types who was so much like you before. The curious and stubborn Martha Jones, the companion who dared to defy the wrath of a Timelord for the sake of saving the Doctor." He paused for a heartbeat. "Do you know what I did to her…and her family?" His voice lowered to a whisper and a mad smile slithered across his lips. "Did the Doctor ever tell you what I did? That one year, when he was my prisoner? Did he mention what kind of horrors he had to suffer by my hands?"
Donna shook her head. "What are you talking about? You would never….w-would you?"
"Ha! I knew it! I knew you wouldn't believe me." He giggled insanely. "Look at me. Who will? I am a lion without claws! The Doctor brought me back and turned me into his bloody lapdog!" The smile vanished from his face.
"But believe me…the past…every blood-drenched memory, every rotten part of my cursed existence, it is all still in here…" He stabbed at his temples with his fingers, then reached out to her like as fast as a viper shooting from underneath a stone.
"Come here…I said come here!" Donna shrieked and flinched away but the Master grabbed her and pulled her to his chest. "Stop struggling!" he barked at her."Let me show you!"
His hands touched her temples and she gasped. Her body froze when he forced his memories into her, flooding her mind with the events of the year that never was.
Harold Saxon, the decimation of the human population by the Toclefanes, followed by the enslavement of humankind. The Doctor, her wonderful crazy Doctor, reduced to pitiful old shell of his former self and imprisoned by the mad Master, to be degraded and tortured to satisfy his sadistic need for revenge. Brave, brave Martha, being hunted down like a wild animal across the continents by his men, while her family was imprisoned and tormented.
"Oh." Donna cried. Tears started to flow down her cheeks unnoticed. "Oh no!" She tried to push him away, but remained locked in his iron grip. "NO!"
The Master laughed. "That's right. Scream! Now you finally get to see me for what I am. Don't you find that refreshing?"
"No! Please!" She begged. Her legs were getting weak and she was sinking through her knees. "Enough…"
"You want me to stop so soon? Didn't you just beg me to tell you what I saw in that orchard? Don't you want to know what's been haunting me ever since we set foot on this stinking hell hole of a planet?" His fingers dug deeper into her skull. "You wanted to see, now look! Look Donna Noble! Open your mind's eyes and drink deep from this dark poisonous pit that is my soul!"
She looked. She had no other option, and what she saw terrified her.
She was standing till up to her waist in the forest stream, the cold water turning her limbs to branches of ice. A white form floated near her and broke the surface. It was a woman dressed in white. Her skin was blue and almost translucent, revealing the web of veins that ran beneath it. Blood flowed down her dress from a horrific gash that ran across her stomach that spilled out her pink insides. She looked at Donna, her once beautiful eyes looked menacing and soulless.
Why did you do it? She wailed without moving her fleshless lips. Look what you've done to me! Why? Why did you take my poor boys from me? WHY?
Fat worms started to crawl out of her rotting flesh. They dropped into the water and where they broke the surface, the water turned into blood. Then her jaw fell open and a horde of flies came swarming out of her mouth.
Donna screamed in horror and covered her face as the black cloud of pests covered the white lady's body and devoured her.
Then the nightmare vision shifted to the orchard, where she reluctantly approached the oaktree in the middle of the garden. There, nested in the crown that bore the blackened scars of a fierce fire, were the bodies of two children. Every bone in their limbs had been smashed and the arms and legs were cruelly woven between the branches of the tree. The coarse ropes that had strangled them were still dangling around their broken necks. In a final act of brutality, their eyes had been gouged out and replaced with round white pebbles.
Donna was gaping at the horrific sight when she suddenly felt a tug on her sleeve. She looked down and found one of the dead boys standing beside her. One of the pebbles had fallen out, leaving a gaping hole in his face where she could see the maggots wriggling inside his brain.
It's so cold up there. The boy told her. The birds can hardly pick the flesh from our bones. We're so stiff and frozen. Do you know how it feels to have your legs and arms smashed while you're still alive? I screamed for mercy, but no one heard me. Not you. Not your men. Not even the birds. A grin of pure hatred spread over the boy's face.
Soon it will be your turn. You will scream and plead like I once did. No one will hear you though. Not even him, not even the Doctor. You shall be as cold and alone as I am now, and the worms will eat holes inside your brain.
"Doctor!" Donna screamed before the child disappeared in front of her eyes. "Doctor!" She wheeled around and saw that the entire tree was set ablaze. Hungry flames licked up against the blackened bark of the roots and the trunk, quickly making their way up to the crown, where they started on the two boys. Now they were alive again, and their eyes turned white with horror as they tried to wriggle their broken limps out of the tangle of branches.
"Oh no. No!" Donna raced forward, but the flames suddenly increased and the blaze turned into an inferno. She pulled her hair in desperation. "No! NO! Someone! Stop this! Doctor! Doctor Help! Please!" Shielding her eyes from the intense heat, she watched in horror how the two little boys, their bodies contorted in agony, were burnt alive, the flames boiling and searing the flesh from their bones.
It was then that she finally realized that she had been calling out to the wrong man. "Master." She spoke. "Master. Stop this. I don't…I don't want this anymore. I don't want to know…" She swallowed hard, and continued more firmly. "This is your hell. Not mine. Get me out me of this. Get me out now!"
The flames reached out to the top the branches, turning the entire tree into a burning cloud of fire. It consumed everything nearby in a blinding white light.
Donna breathed in the frosty air as she slowly lifted her hands from her eyes. She was back in the moonlight lit darkness of the forest. The Master was staring at her, his expression grim. His eyes were filled with grief and remorse, but she could not even feel the slightest touch of sympathy for him. After all he had shown her, she wasn't even sure she was ever capable to stop hating him.
"You are the Dark lord of the Ser Titanis legends." She whispered. "You are responsible for what had happened to the Saltmen, for the murder of lord Dagonmourn, his wife, and his children. She broke down, and clasped a hand over her mouth, shivering. "Oh those poor kids…"
"I was the Dark lord. I am no longer." The Master replied. "Oh how I wish they would stop haunting me, these shadows of the past, they do not know my intentions, still they exert themselves in every way to drive me insane! I cannot think! I cannot sleep! They won't leave me alone, not even for one second!"
"And they shouldn't! What you did was unforgivable! It was monstrous! Have you no bloody conscience?"
The Master seemed puzzled by her harsh response. "I showed you everything you wanted to know and still you judge me... But…why does that still surprise me?" He slapped his forehead in self-contempt. "Stupid, stupid me! It always goes this way. It always ends this like this."
"All right, tell me then mister "Big Misunderstanding" what are your intensions? And don't give me any more of that crazy talk. I am not buying into that load of bullocks anymore!"
"You think this is all an act?" The Master sneered, gazing at her with contempt.
"Oh no, I do believe that you're 100% bat crap crazy, but I just don't longer care. All I want to know is that ser Titanis and Gellard and the others are safe. That the Doctor is safe and not falling in some kind of trap set out by someone he thought he could trust because he was his frien -" She broke off the sentence. "You really are up to something, aren't you?" We are not here because that star led us here. It's because you wanted us to be here…"
"Very clever Ginger." The Master said with a tired smile and clapped his hands. "Never thought you had it in you, but there you are, figuring it out all by yourself. Your transformation from an ugly ignorant human maggot to a worthy butterfly companion must be complete, although from the surface it's very hard to see. Nonetheless, this deserves a round of applause."
"Why do you do this to him?" Donna asked, knowing that this would break the Doctor's heart. "He really thought that you have changed."
"You don't know much about us, do you? I have betrayed his trust before. The good Doctor never learns." The forced smile vanished from his face, and his mood darkened, turning almost remorseful. "You probably won't believe me, but this is not cruelty, nor is it vindictiveness. This is kindness. This is me, being kind to him." He swallowed hard and looked away for a moment. "Tell him that I am sorry, will you? At least now he will have you to look after I am gone. When he left me, I had no-one." His dark eyes turned hard as he gazed over Donna shoulder. "And as for our lost friends from the Midwall…I don't think that there is any need to look for them any further."
By the time she had wheeled around and saw the bodies of Jenkin and Olaf swinging from the branches of the tree behind her, the Master had already vanished into the woods.