As darkness settled around them, Jiuren brought a shimmering ball of phosphorescence out of one of her pockets to illuminate their path. They wandered deeper into the ruins, picking their way over fallen colonnades and under partially-collapsed lintels. Perhaps more confidently than he should have, the Traveller strode out ahead of her, narrowly escaping a plunge into a gaping crevice. Careless, careless, he told himself, thankful for Jiuren's hand pulling him back from the brink. He dropped to all fours and peered into the murky depths. He flicked a bit of rubble into the chasm, waited for the clatter at the bottom of the pit. He waited a long time.
He whistled softly, listening to the echo.
Something whistled back from deep within the building. A wheezing, guttural sound, hissing like the breath of a predator poised to strike.
Juiren's pretty little blue face was pale in the flickering light, her eyes wide. Edging away from the deep fissure, he once again took his Advocate's small hand, squeezing it in encouragement. Jiuren gripped tightly. She said nothing, but he could sense her fear. She knew more than she was letting on. She was terrified, but still had not told him why. When they heard it again, closer than before, they stopped abruptly. He gently pushed Jiuren behind him as he peered into the shadows.
Out of the darkness a thin, rasping voice intoned: "Doctor? Dok-torrrrr!"
He stared as the most hateful thing he could have imagined moved into view. An armoured robotic form rolled forward on the splintered tile, levelling what could only have been a weapon at them. A moment later he was running, pulling Jiuren along behind him as the metal monster opened fire on them.
"What IS that thing?"
"A Darr-lek," Jiuren told him, as if it were the most obvious thing in the word.
Sure, a maniacal, mobile, mouthy overturned dust bin. Why hadn't he known that? "They say you opened the Gate and brought it here."
"Me?" he cried, incredulous, ducking from one colonnade to the next, sweeping the vindasi girl along with him. "Brought it from where? Hell?"
"That's one theory, yes."
They covered their heads as another shower of rock was loosed from the ceiling and rained down around them. He drew the young vindasi Advocate close, shielding her with his own body.
"That thing is a walking, talking death-machine. Well," he amended, peering around a massive pillar to see the Darr-lek trundling toward them, "not walking exactly but—"
"Dok-torrrr!" the Darr-lek grated. "I have i-den-ti-fied you. Your app-ear-ance is verified . Exterminate! Exterminate!"
"Sorry mate," he called across the ever-decreasing distance. "Don't know who you think I am, but I have no idea who this doctor is that you're looking for." He lowered his voice and asked his companion: "Am I really a doctor?"
"According to the Darr-lek, yes, love, you are."
He made a rude noise. Given Jiuren's expression it might have been ruder in vindasi. "I'm not anything of the sort! Me? What kind of doctor? Doctor who?"
"I don't know."
"You are the Dok-torr! Your appearance has not been altered! You opened the Gate!" the Darr-lek repeated. It sounded rather annoyed.
"Yeah, you've said that. But I don't half believe you," he told the evil rubbish bin as he boosted Jiuren up to a balcony and pulled himself up after her. He trusted the eroded stairwell on this end of the room would serve as a deterrent to the Darr-lek. Unless it could fly. That seemed unlikely.
The Darr-lek shuddered like a makeshift rocket with a boat anchor latched its backside, rising slowly before clattering back to the ground.
"Oh, too bad," he told it. "Your booster rockets not working?"
The Darr-lek answered with another blast from its gun arm.
"Note to self: don't taunt the pepper pot."
"That would seem wise," Jiuren agreed.
They edged along the crumbling balcony in search of hand and footholds, anything to put more distance between themselves and certain death. He located a partially-collapsed alcove and lifted Jiuren over the debris before scrambling in himself. His Advocate didn't weigh a thing, but already the strain of running and climbing had him out of breath. Whatever illness had plagued him since his arrival in vindasi space had not abated. Running away wasn't going to work. He needed to employ another strategy.
"See, the thing is, Darr-lek, you're wrong. I've never seen your hateful little metal—er—face before; I do not recall opening any Gates, and I have no idea who this Doctor is that you're on about, but it isn't me."
"You lie! You lie! The Doctor lies!"
"And for all I know you might be right about that," he admitted, ducking down when another blast shot through the dark. "Not knowing him, I hate to sully his character, but you may be right about him lying. But I'm not."
"You are a Time Lord! You would deceive me!"
He looked at Jiuren and mouthed the words Time Lord? What's a Time Lord? She didn't answer.
When the Darr-lek successfully engaged its elevation mode and gained access to the balcony level, they moved as rapidly as they dared, working through the passages with only the faint glow of Jiuren's glimmering sphere to light their way. A crumbling staircase led them to another balcony. Below them, small beacons flashed in warning as the Darr-lek's lid swung back and forth, searching for them in the dim light. Listening to them. He pressed his finger to his lips and Jiuren nodded, swallowing deeply as she tucked the phosphorescent globe under her robes to douse the light. Too late, the hateful creature zeroed in on them, perhaps, he thought, though the use of some sort of heat sensor. It fired. Stone splintered and dust exploded in every direction. They made for the lowest level, but the Darr-lek arrived before them, hissing and clattering and groaning, almost as if it were in pain.
"You can-not escape. Your location can-not be concealed. You and your associate will be prisoners of the Daaaa-leks. Obey! Obey!"
He had run out of options. In a daring move he pushed Jiuren behind a massive pillar and dropped down from the ledge they had been trapped on, falling in a heap in front of certain death. The Darr-lek nearly barreled into him, its gun arm extended. As he struggled to his feet, the monster advanced, pinning him against the wall. He stared at the flashing lights on its dome, grimacing at the reek of slow decay, and ozone, and hate. A glowing single eye on a metal stalk waved madly in front of him.
"Are Time Lords human?"
The Darr-lek hesitated. "What?"
"Are Time Lords human? he asked again. "Simple question, really. Are they human, cos I am. Human that is. The vindasi said so. I'm a human from—what did you call it?"
"Earth," Jiuren told him.
"Earth. That's right! Earth. Lotsa water. Clean people. I'm from Earth."
"You are a Time Lord! You are from Gallifrey! You are the Dok-torr!" the Darr-lek told him, its entire casing shuddering as it said the words. It was in sorry shape, the metal hull dented and creased. The domed lid of the crazy thing wobbled as it hissed. Whatever was inside there was not only angry, it was in agony. "You are an enemy of all Daaaa-leks!"
"Prove that I'm who you say I am. That I'm this Doctor from Gallililly."
"You are! You are! Your identity has been confirmed! Your appearance has not altered!"
"Oh, come on! Falling for that old trick? Someone wants you to believe that I'm someone that I'm not and while I don't blame The Vindasi for being rather annoyed that you're here—and I'd very much like to help him shut that Gate thingie so none of your brothers or sisters come through, that is, if you have brothers and sisters, and nothing personal really, but you aren't winning any popularity contests right now—I didn't bring you here, I have no idea who the Doctor is, nor do I have any idea what a Time Lord is and I've never heard of what did you call it? Gallifrey? Sorry. Drawing a blank. I'm a human, from—Earth? Earth. Yeah. Earth. Green grass, blue skies, boy bands, and lotsa poetry. So I ask you, how can I be anyone else, even if I look like him?"
The Darr-lek's creepy eye-on-a-stalk swung back and forth not more than a few inches from his face and it's metal, robotic arms waved menacingly.
"You are the Dok-torr," it insisted again, moving back slightly. "You are a Time Lord! Initiate scan!"
"Scan away," he said, clasping his hands behind his back innocently, "but I think you'll find..."
"Human! Human! You have only one heart! Im-poss-ible! Your appearance has not altered! You are the Time Lord! You are the enemy! You are our destruction."
"Well you got that part right," he said coldly, plunging Jiuren's hair buckle into the Darr-leks eye.
The Darr-lek screamed in indignation and fired a random blast that he was lucky to dodge. More like avoid due to collapsing, but the result was the same. Before it could fire again, he yanked his makeshift weapon free, spun the little shell of hate around, and jammed the hair buckle into the space just below the domed head where he had noticed the damage earlier. Unable to rotate its armoured exterior, and blind, the Darr-lek was at his mercy. The crevice they had almost fallen into earlier served nicely.
Hours later, four vandasi palace guards dragged him from The Hall of Veracity kicking and screaming, Jiuren running after them, imploring them not to harm him. When one of them gripped his right forearm, he yowled in pain. Perhaps they interpreted that as a declaration of war because the next thing he knew he was on the cold marble floor, his head spinning, blood in his eyes, the wind completely knocked out of him. He was struggling to get his breath as it was, his heart pounding, his lungs rattling. Someone kicked him soundly and he nearly lost consciousness. After that, they simply dragged him until they reached the prison cell he had hoped never to see again.
"Stop! You can't! You're in violation of your own laws! I did what was asked of me. I got rid of your monster—would I have done that if we were in league? It was trying to kill us! Both of us!"
The largest of the guards held him, twisting his right arm behind his back. He writhed in pain.
"Advocate! Surely I've earned my freedom!"
"I'm sorry," Jiuren told him, tears forming in her pretty little green eyes. "I did try and you kept your promise. But The Vindasi's word is the law—nothing else matters."
"What about the truth?"
"The Vindasi Shapes the Truth," Jiuren intoned like so much rhetoric, ingrained from the cradle on.
"You don't really believe that! You serve a higher truth, you're-"
"In this place, at this time, my beliefs only matter to me."
"I don't understand! I still don't even know why I'm here or how I got here. I don't even know what that thing was!"
"I believe you," Jiuren told him, "but you heard it. It knew you, love, or thought it did."
"How could it? I don't even know who you think I am!" he said as he was shoved roughly to the floor and held there with a heavy boot pressed against his neck. "Oy! Watch it you overgrown Smurf!"
"I know... and I believe that, too, but—"
Another of the guards was pushing her out the door. None too gently.
"Don't touch her!" he growled, throwing off his guard as his anger intensified. He clambered after them. "Keep your hands off of her!"
The guard, one of the palace military police and not the kindly Coradelium Vidis, the one who had been keeping watch over him for longer than he could account for, stiff-armed him into a wall and he dropped in a heap, coughing and gasping for air. He was already winded from their perilous adventure on the planet below, then taking a blow outside the Hall of Veracity in the citadel; he could no longer focus and stars rimmed the edges of his vision. He pressed his injured arm against his chest and tried to stand. The guard kicked his feet out from under him and he crashed to the floor again. Blood trickled from his nose.
"Oh, for pity's sake leave him be!" Jiuren told the sniggering palace guards, falling to her knees beside him. When they next approached she rounded on them and hissed something in a dialect he did not recognize. For all her lack of size, she was as mighty a warrior as he had ever seen. Whatever she said, it gained them a moment's peace.
"Please. You and Del are the only ones who have shown me any kindness at all. Tell me what I've done, Jiuren. Tell me who I am. I can't remember-" he pleaded.
"And it is best you don't remember. I fear that if you do..."
The Vindasi Himself appeared at the door then, the man's very presence enough to silence her. She touched his face one final time, her thoughts brushing against his. He gasped.
You didn't abandon me. I swear I will not forsake you. Keep the faith, Traveller.
The Vindasi Himself swept her from the room much as a father takes charge of a wayward child. The door slammed closed behind them.
"No!" he roared, pulling himself up to grip the window bars in an all too familiar of a scene.
The Vindasi was still there, hard face devoid of all emotion. Jiuren was there, too, still advocating for his release. She was stubborn, that one. Brave as the morning. Del Vidis turned away, shielding green eyes as Jiuren railed against injustice, her inflection no longer one reserved for court and polite company. Now it was familiar, inflections indicative of kinship. He thought again of the glyph below her left eye and the title The Vindasi had bestowed upon her. She was not just of the Noblest of Houses, she was of the royal household itself.
No. No. The Vindasi had put one of his own in harm's way, had risked her life to Shape the Truth about the alien in their midst.
The palace guard Jiuren had time and time attempted to have removed from his post sauntered into view. No polite head turn from this one. No shielding of hard eyes from the shameful show of emotion before The Vindasi Himself. Instead, the man looked him directly in the eye and, as The Vindasi struck the girl before walking away, smiled. He had seen that thin, sneering smile before. He had seen and had not understood. His stomach felt cold with the realization that Truth in any form had nothing to do with his fate now.
Worse, Jiuren, his brave hearted little Advocate, was weeping.
When Del Vidis stepped forward, the palace guard intervened, lifting the girl roughly to her feet. Feathers dropped softly around her like silent tears.
"Don't you touch her!" he snarled, his heart pounding. Jiuren looked up at him. Green eyes glistened in the flickering lamp light, pleading with him not to say the wrong thing. For both their sakes. He swallowed blood and bile. Quickly, before The Vindasi got too far along the corridor, he spoke.
"You set me a task to prove my honour according to vindasi Law. I willingly completed it. I did not forsake what was precious to your Most Noble House," he added.
For a moment, just a moment, The Vindasi paused. A single gesture was all it took and Del Vidis stepped forward, ushering Jiuren away—albeit more gently than she had been handled by either her kinsman or the palace guard he now realised was anything but. This was the same man they had met outside the Hall of Veracity. The one Jiuren had identified as a cleric of the Flight. More, he wielded power. More power than anyone in vindasi culture should, save The Vindasi Himself. What had Jiuren called their political games? The machinations of the ruling elite? A ruling class due to step down to the Holy Order. According to custom. Tradition. Law. He saw the Truth in it, and the truth was a lie.
"Set me another task! Tell me what I need to do. You got more of those crazy dust bins? Gimme something to defend myself with and I'll deal with them! Got a Gate to close? Show me. Tell me," he cried, his words echoing down the now-empty corridor. He twisted the window grate to no avail. "What is the Shape of the Truth you would have me prove? What do I have to do to earn my freedom?!"
The vindasi cleric, garbed now in royal livery, leaned close to the iron bars. This close, the glyph on his left cheek could be seen clearly. It did not match Jiuren's and his cruel eyes… were not green.
"One such as you can never be free... love."
To be continued in 2013 in "The Forsworn"…