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AJ Dalton: Empire of the Saviours extract

empire of the savioursThis week marks the paperback publication of EMPIRE OF THE SAVIOURS, by A J Dalton. The first part in a fantasy trilogy of epic proportions, EMPIRE introduces us to young Jillan, the brutal world in which he lives, and the Heroes, Saints and Saviours who protect the population. But from what? And can you ever really trust a Hero? Jillan’s adventures continue in GATEWAY OF THE SAVIOURS, which we publish in March.

However, this extract (from Chapter 2) concerns Freda, perhaps my favourite character. Freda is a woman suffering from a mysterious case of rock-blight, a disease that turns the skin to stone and ultimately freezes the victim within a living statue. But it’s better if you read it in A J Dalton’s own words… and after that, why not pop along to one of his signings?

Signing dates (for copies of both Empire of the Saviours and Gateway of the Saviours):

– Saturday 9 March, Waterstones Manchester Arndale Centre, from 11am

– Saturday 16 March, Waterstones Waterstones Warrington, from 11am

As more events are confirmed, they’ll be posted on http://www.ajdalton.eu/.

She had been born in darkness and had grown in darkness. Her earliest memory was a scream. Whether her own or her dying mother’s, she had no way of knowing. Cries, a wet slap, sticky warmth and bad smells. The instinctive need for milk, minerals, sustenance – anything! Lying on her side there in the dark, she’d sucked in whatever she could, swallowing water, grit and something that was half-congealed and had a metallic tang.

The dark was timeless. There she remained in the womb of the earth until she found the ability to move and grasp at different places and textures. She gorged on new thicknesses and slurries, physical need forcing her to eat even the ones that smelt bad. Afterwards, she would sometimes feel bad, and her body would spasm and physically reject what she had just eaten; but she would take the stuff down again, and again, until her body became used to it and she could start to grow more.

She began to hear. . . well, not herself. . . the darkness rather. Whenever she moved, sound came from the womb around her. The sound repeated and shifted, allowing her to get a sense of where substance was thick, thin or absent. Movement and sound, limit and space. She began to perceive differences in the darkness without having to move. What lay beyond the gaps? she wondered.

She moved freely through the darkness to the largest gap. Suddenly, there was a terrible rumbling and the womb shook. She moved back quickly and crouched down in fear. The rumbling continued, finally became quieter and then stilled. She decided she would not go near the gap again, but then she heard cries from the other side, cries like her earliest memory. Perhaps there was another one of her through the gap.

She waited. The cries became quieter and more infrequent. Worried that they would disappear and leave her alone again, she ventured closer to the gap once more. There was no rumbling this time. She went through and then moved into the absence beyond, following the cries, chasing them before they could escape.

‘Who’s there?’ wheezed a voice.

Sounds she didn’t understand. Not a movement and not cries exactly. Something different. She turned this way and that, trying to make it out.

‘Is someone there? Help me, please! The cave-in has me pinned. I can hardly move. For the love of the Overlords, help me!’

The other her seemed stuck in the thickness. It couldn’t move freely in the way she could. The sounds it made were unpleasant to listen to, as if it were. . . scared. It smelt odd, but not scary. Her mouth watered hungrily, but she was not used to eating something that moved. And if she ate it, she’d be alone again. So she pulled the other her out of the thickness instead.

‘Aieee! Careful! Thank you, thank you! Who are you? How are you so strong? Do you have any light?’

Unintelligible sounds. The other lay hardly moving. She remembered back to her earliest time. She had been like this once, lying in the dark. She’d needed darkness she could eat, the runny kind. She scooped it out of a nearby hollow and poured it into the other’s mouth.

A gasp. ‘Thank you, that’s better. I was so thirsty!’

Physical contact. She grunted and shuffled back, uncertain.

‘Oh! I’m sorry. You have the blight, you poor soul. I didn’t know. May the Overlords bless you. And I don’t mind, truly.’ A pause. ‘My name’s Norfred. I thought I was a goner that time. Probably would have been if you hadn’t happened along. They don’t make much effort to find the old ones like me, you know.’

The other was not as thick or hard as she was. It was not the same as her. And it still didn’t move much. She nudged it.

‘Here! What are you about? Man who’s just been through a cave-in needs a moment to recover, you know. Who do you think you are, one of the Overseers?’

The other had flailed out and slapped her. Startled, she hunkered back. She wasn’t used to feeling something that wasn’t hunger. She wanted more. She came back and nudged him again and waited for the slap.

‘All right, all right! No rest for the wicked, eh? Help me up then.’

The other made contact in different places at the same time. She froze, utterly overwhelmed by the sensation. Here! This was otherness! An infinite wonder beyond the womb! She wanted to consume it entirely, wanted to be consumed by it entirely. It was everything she wanted and could ever want.

‘Okay, okay. I’m fine. Let go now! Overlords, but you’re heavier than the cave-in. Easy, easy! Oww!’

The other was making the unpleasant scared noises again, so she eased her hold on it, but did not let go completely.

‘We need to go this way, but there’ll be tons to be moved. Don’t know another way to the home chamber, do you? Didn’t think so. Then we’d better get started while our strength lasts, eh? If we’re lucky, they’ll hear us working and start digging from their side.’

The other scrabbled feebly at the thickness where it was mixed with areas of absence. She sensed that the other would get stuck in the thickness again! The thickness was not as hard in places as it needed to be. Couldn’t the other tell?’

With a grunt, she pulled the other back and started to shift the thickness herself, but only where the thickness was hard enough and would not make them stuck.

‘Oh! Thank you. By the Overlords, that’s amazing!’

She pushed through and past the thickness with ease, more familiar with its nature than anything else in her life. It was the substance of the womb that had fed and nurtured her from the beginning. She’d eaten it, slept on it and clung to it in the dark since she could remember. And she’d become as hard as the thickness itself, becoming just an extension of its substance, albeit a moving one. When she passed through it like this, she almost felt at one with it and fancied she could understand its vastness, could feel its infinitely slow movements, and could glimpse its strange thoughts, although none made sense to her.

The other stayed crouched directly behind her as she went.

‘You move through the rock as if it were water, or the air itself. Truly, you have an amazing skill. You must be the greatest miner in the world!’

Sounds from the other that were not unpleasant to listen to. In fact, they were nice and created a feeling in her she could not remember experiencing before. It was like wanting to be consumed by the otherness. It made her want to do things for the other, do everything for the other.

She moved all the thickness aside until she broke into the great absence beyond. And then the darkness disappeared and she became blind! She cried and made unpleasant noises to tell the other that she was scared. And then the other was there helping her.

‘It’s just the light from the miners and the home chamber up ahead! Here, cover your eyes until they get used to it. Give me your hand! Here, over your eyes. That’s it.’

Gone was the texture, depth and differentiation of the darkness, all washed away by something that was. . . not darkness, was the opposite of darkness.

The other guided her forward through the blindness, just as she had guided him through the dark and thickness a moment before. Was the blindness then the substance and nature with which the other was most familiar? Had this substance fed and nurtured the other during its beginning? Had the other eaten of it, this thin substance that was not darkness, slept on it and clung to it? Was that why the other was soft and thin where she was hard and thick? Was otherness then precisely what she was not? Was that why she felt completed by it? Was that why she wanted nothing but the other?

Sounds came towards them, sounds that were more others. So many! The sound swamped her and she tried to block it out with her hands, but then the blindness flooded in. Trembling, she turned away.

‘Back, back!’ the other cried. ‘Don’t crowd it! It saved me! Yes, I’m fine. It brought me through the cave-in. Quietly, quietly! It seems scared.’

‘Is it the rock blight? I’ve never seen it so bad.’

‘But it moves freely. It hasn’t petrified or turned to stone like so many do. How can that be?’

‘Its skin seems hard enough though.’

‘How is it not a statue, fixed?’

‘It’s a female,’ the other sounded. ‘But mute, I think.’

‘Poor thing. Let us women take her with us.’

‘No, she has the taint. She’ll infect us all!’

Contact all over her. She lashed out.

Unpleasant sounds. Cries.

‘Aieee! My arm! It’s broken! Bitch!’

‘Leave her!’ Sounds from her other. ‘Back! All of you! Don’t touch her. You’re scaring her.’

‘My arm! My arm!’

‘Someone help Gang-leader Darus. I’ll calm her and take her to my tunnel,’ the other said.

‘She’s a danger. Ah! Careful, you dolts!’

‘We shall deal with her in good time, Gang-leader. It’s more immediately important that we see to your own immediately. We are nothing without you. Quickly, take the Gang-leader to the healer.’

Contact again, but this time she knew it was her other, for she could sense its particular texture. She clung tightly to it, knowing she must be hurting it, but there were no unpleasant sounds. The other was helping her. The other completed her. All would be well while the other was with her.

The other led her through the absence. She sensed them both entering a vast area of absence and then a smaller place.

‘Here we are. This is my burrow. It’s small but cosy. Sit here. That’s it. Now, let’s see what we can do about your eyes. I’ll wrap some cloth around your head and you can get used to the small light that gets through that for a while. Everything will be fine, you’ll see.’

And so she entered the world of the Overlords. Every morning Norfred would speak to her and teach her words. He gave her the name Freda, and she was pleased because it was a gift from him, although she wasn’t sure why she needed it or what it was for exactly. And the others referred to her via other names and words anyway, although she wasn’t sure what any of them meant. Then he would test her eyes without the cloth, and she would suffer the blindness for a while to humour him, although she could sense far more when her eyes were closed and she moved through a world of darkness.

After their morning lesson, they would go with the others to work at the thickness, or rock as they called it. The others were soft and not very good at moving through the thickness despite the things they had called tools. She, however, had no trouble pushing though it. The others were amazed at how she worked, and made excited noises. Norfred was happy too, and that pleased her, especially because he seemed to need more help than a lot of the others to move the thickness.

‘It’s because I am old, Freda,’ he said when she asked him about it one day.

‘Old?’ she gurgled.

‘Yes. After a certain amount of time, people start to get weaker, Freda, until they are so weak that they simply stop altogether.’

Freda scratched at her head and flicked away bits of skin that had crumbled where she had caught her head against a low-hanging piece of rock. ‘If they stop completely, they become like the rock. . . or slurry, yes?’

Norfred tilted his head as he thought about it and then nodded. ‘Yes,’ he smiled, ‘just like the rock and slurry, waiting for miners to find valuable bits left in among them.’

‘Once they have stopped, how do they start again, Norfred?’

‘They don’t, Freda, I’m afraid. It’s called being dead.’

Freda was quiet for a long while. Then she gurgled unhappily, ‘I don’t want you to stop, Norfred!’

He patted her on the arm. ‘Don’t worry, Freda, it won’t be for a long time, especially if you’re around to save me from any cave-ins. It’s a blessing for us that you always know where the rock is too weak to venture. There hasn’t been a single accident since you joined us, you know. Even Darus has to listen when you say where we should and shouldn’t work, although I don’t think he likes having to do so, eh?’

‘Darus doesn’t like me, Norfred!’

‘Ah, don’t worry, Freda – he doesn’t like anyone. That’s just his way. It’s his job as Gang-leader not to like anyone or have any favourites, as that way he makes sure we all work as hard as possible. Our Overseer made Darus the Gang-leader precisely because Darus was the meanest of everyone here, you see. But Darus is in a far better mood these days now that you help us find so much sun-metal. The Overseer is very pleased, I hear, and there’s talk that Darus might soon ascend as reward. He would be the youngest of us ever to do so. It is the just reward for hard work to which we all aspire, Freda.’

Freda’s nose cracked as she wrinkled it. ‘I don’t like the sun-metal, Norfred. It frightens and blinds me. And it hurts to touch.’

‘It’s just the way it glows, Freda, that’s all. Your eyes aren’t used to it. But many think it is as beautiful as it is rare, and the Overlords need it to make their weapons for the war they fight on our behalf. There is nothing stronger than sun-metal, you see, and it burns our dark foes terribly. We supply the sun-metal to the Overlords, and in return they make great sacrifices above to ensure that we remain safe down here. And they will often go without food to ensure we eat properly.’

Freda nodded, although she didn’t understand much of what Norfred said. He’d talked of such things many times before and it seemed important to him that she understood and agreed. But she didn’t eat the food of the others because it made her feel weak – she was far happier with the slurry that came from the thickness. It meant her bones were never soft or breaking, unlike the bones of the others.

‘So, you see, the sun-metal is important, and you are a blessing to all of us. And you are a blessing to me in my old age, Freda, for I’d never thought to have anything like a wife or child again. But the Overlords have been kind, for I have lived long enough to see the day.’

Freda was very familiar with the idea of children, for there were always some of them running and playing about the main home chamber, and the larger ones tended to work side by side with the adults. And there seemed to be two types of adults: husbands and wives. They tended to stay in pairs, for companionship and to look after a child or two. Freda was not sure she would know how to look after a child, though.

‘What happened to your wife and child from before?’ she asked curiously.

Through the gauze over her eyes, she saw Norfred scrunch up his face in a way she associated with him being unhappy.

‘The rock blight took my dear Tasha, but our son Jan was done the great honour of being chosen for the army of the Overlords. He’s a handsome and strapping lad, you see, and those like him are often selected by the Overseers. There was a great celebration in the home chamber, for a whole level of the mine takes pride when one of its own is taken like that.’

But Norfred’s voice sounded sad rather than proud. ‘Are you sorry you do not see and touch him any more?’

Norfred smiled. ‘Of course, Freda. I miss him dreadfully, even though he was taken so many years ago. I fear that the fighting is bad, I wonder where he is and I imagine he has a wife and a child of his own now. A grandchild, you see. And maybe that grandchild looks like my dear Tasha. Ah, but listen to me going on. It’s nothing but fanciful talk, best not dwelt upon.’

‘Maybe we can go and look for him if that will make you happy, Norfred.’

‘What are you saying, Freda? There is a terrible war up there. It would be far too dangerous. And every miner must work as long and as hard as they can to find sun-metal. If they were all to go off looking for their children, there would be no sun-metal, no weapons and no army. All would be lost, Freda! The Overlords depend on us. If I were to go off, all the other miners would have to work harder, but they already work as hard as they can, so it would break some of them, and I cannot have that on my conscience, truly I can’t. Besides, the Overseers and the miners of the levels above guard the way and wouldn’t let us up.’

Freda puzzled and then said tentatively, ‘We can go our own way up. I can take us through the rock like I did with the cave-in. We can go now.’

Norfred became tense now, as if upset. In a low voice, he said, ‘I. . .This is my home, Freda. I was born here, like my father before me.’

‘Are you scared, Norfred?’ she asked in confusion. She’d thought he wanted to see his son more than anything else. And she only wanted to make him happy.

‘Freda, I. . .’ He paused for a long moment. ‘I have never been above this level, let alone all the way up. What you’re suggesting is. . .’ He gave up again. ‘I am at this lowest of levels because it is my place. When I have worked long and hard, then I will ascend. Even that is not certain, because I am weak. But we don’t know what’s up there.’

‘You’re weak because of the poor food you eat, and your son is up there.’

‘Wait, wait. Freda, we’re happy here. You’re happy here, aren’t you?’

‘Yes, Norfred. I am happy when with you. You will be happier with your son though, will you not?’

‘Enough, Freda! I don’t want to talk about it any more. I’ll think about it later, but I don’t have time right now. You heard the bell – we have to go and start work with the gang. We don’t want to be late.’

‘Yes, Norfred,’ she said miserably. ‘Don’t be angry with Freda, please.’

He sighed and patted her arm again. ‘I’m sorry, Freda. I’ll think about it, I promise I will. Come on, let’s see if we can find enough sun-metal to make even Darus smile. Now that would be a thing to see, eh?’

‘Yes, Norfred,’ she said more happily.

‘It’s not enough!’ Darus spat at Norfred.

Norfred frowned. ‘But it’s more sun-metal than we’ve ever collected. In just one shift we’ve found more than we did all of last year!’

‘Just because we’ve finally found a rich vein doesn’t mean we can slacken off and waste our time with celebration! Quite the opposite! We should be inspired to work even harder now that our efforts are finally beginning to bear fruit. We have kept the Overlords desperately short for far too long. We need to get the sun-metal to them as quickly as possible, so it can save us all, and perhaps even tip the balance of the war in favour of the Overlords. So stop your selfish and shameful whining, Norfred, and get that brute back to the workface.’

Norfred placed himself between Freda and the Gang-leader. ‘She’s exhausted! You’ve had her working two shifts straight. Push her any further and she’ll become ill. Then where will we be? Don’t risk all we’ve achieved for the short-term!’

‘Are you forgetting who is Gang-leader here, old man?’ Darus sneered. ‘Are you becoming addled in your dotage? Do you forget who instructs who?’

‘It’s a-al-all right, I can work for a little more,’ Freda groaned.

Norfred ignored her and drew himself up to his full height. Freda knew his back would suffer for it later. ‘Darus,’ Norfred rasped, ‘I am not so addled as to forget when I dandled you as a babe on my knee. I am not so addled as to forget having to tan your hide for stealing apples from the stores when you were a mere boy. I am not so addled as to forget you asking my advice when you were made a Gang-leader not so long ago. And I am not so addled that I cannot see when a man’s better judgement has been undone by his selfish ambition to ascend!’

‘How dare you!’ Darus blazed, his voice so loud it echoed throughout the level. Eyes wild with fury, he stepped forward and violently backhanded the old man.

Norfred crumpled to the ground, Darus shrieking as he discovered he’d again fractured his arm that had only recently mended.

With a roar louder than any rockfall, Freda surged towards the hated Gang-leader. Darus had brought two of his biggest men with him, and they came forward now to meet her. One slammed a giant fist into her chin, but she barely felt it, while the bruiser cried out as several of his knuckles broke. She smashed her forehead into his nose, instantly turning his face into a bloody mess. Then she swung her right arm and hit the other miner across the chest with it. He flew backwards into the cave wall, his head cracking sickeningly against the rock. He slid to the floor and blood began to pool around him.

She advanced on Darus now, intent on pounding him to dust. The Gang-leader whimpered in fear and she smelt urine.

There was a weak cough and Norfred called to her. ‘Freda, don’t! I need your help. Leave him! Freda, come lift me up and take me somewhere safe. Freda, I need you.’

She hesitated with her two boulder-like fists raised above Darus’s head. Then she lowered them slowly and turned back towards the other, he who made her complete, he whom she only wanted to make happy and protect. But she had not done enough to protect the other, and now he was hurt. She was suddenly terrified that he would stop completely. She stumbled to him in haste and lifted him as gently as her clumsy hands would allow. He was so light and fragile. She could tell he was weakening. She sensed something like a small cave-in in his head, but this time she didn’t know how to save him.

‘Freda is sorry, Norfred!’ she moaned.

He ran trembling fingers across her cheek and whispered, ‘Do not be sad, Freda. I have had a long life, longer than most. And I am happier than any that ever lived that I got to know you.’ He coughed weakly and his rheumy eyes clouded with pain. ‘Promise me?’

She lowered her head closer to his lips. ‘Anything, Norfred!’

‘Promise me that you’ll go to the top of the mine and beyond. You deserve to be free of Darus and his cruelty. I wish I had listened to you before, and now it is too late, my dearest Freda. If you see. . . if you see Jan, tell him I. . . I miss him and love him.’

‘Don’t stop, Norfred, pleeease!’

The life in him guttered like a miner’s candle. ‘There’s no pain now, Freda. Take me to the women. They will know how to tend to my body. Be free and happy, my dearest Freda.’
And then all was darkness. Where once she had found comfort, nurture and texture in that darkness, now it was empty. It was a void where the silence was eternal and deafening.
‘You’ll pay for this, you freak,’ Darus promised quietly as he watched the monster retreating down the tunnel, cradling the old bag of bones.

The women had always been kind to Freda, although she didn’t understand the look of sympathy that was always in their eyes when she spoke to them. She was grateful for it now though.

‘Place him here, you poor thing,’ Mistress Widders said gently. ‘That’s it. We’ll look after him and see to it that he’s prepared in the proper way. He’ll join the spirits of those who went before him, dear. He’ll be cast into the bottomless pit, which is one of the eternal places.’

Freda’s sharp ears picked up shouts in the distance, but no one else seemed to have heard them yet.

‘It goes on forever, you see. There is no death or unhappiness there. He’ll be welcomed by the Overlords who have gone before him, and he will be treated as if he were their equal. They will celebrate his life and name him an Underlord of this world. And he will wait for you, Freda, and you will see him again one day.’

‘I will?’ she asked in wonder, suddenly filled with hope and smiling so widely that flakes of skin rattled off her cheeks. ‘If I cast myself into the bottomless pit, maybe I can see him straight away!’

Mistress Widders’s face fell. ‘No, Freda, that would be wrong. The Overlords will not receive us in the eternal world until we have first finished all our work for them in this world. Do your duty by them here, and then you will be welcomed by them. They will call you to them when the time is right. It was Norfred’s time, but it is not yet yours. Norfred will wait for you and watch over you. Do you understand?’

She nodded heavily. The shouts were closer now. The anger in them was plain to hear.

‘What’s that commotion now?’ Mistress Widders asked in exasperation. ‘Will these men never abide? There is grieving to be done, respects to be paid and prayers to be said. Is it beyond them to keep the peace?’ The head woman sighed, touched Freda on the arm and asked, ‘Freda, be brave now and tell me how Norfred passed.’

Freda shifted her weight from foot to foot and shook her head. She didn’t want to think about the terrible moment again. She would see her kind Norfred again one day and that was enough for her. They should just leave her alone now. Why couldn’t they leave her alone now?

‘Come on, dear. Save for the bottomless pit, there is nowhere that is deep or dark enough to hide from the Overlords. I need to know, Freda, if you have done anything wrong. Tell me, quickly now.’

‘It was my fault!’ she choked. ‘I didn’t want to work any more, and that made Norfred and Darus argue. I know I am meant to do what the Gang-leader says. But he hurt my Norfred so I hurt him back. I’m sorry! I didn’t mean to.’

‘Shh!’ the head woman said, patting Freda. Her face became stern. ‘Darus hurt Norfred, yes?’

Freda nodded miserably.

Voices erupted around them as a large group of miners carrying flaming torches charged around the bend in the tunnel that led to the women’s chamber. The light dazzled Freda’s eyes and she was forced to turn away.

‘The freak murdered the old man! And killed good Sol too! She must pay!’

‘The rock blight has made her a mad beast. She must be thrown down before she can turn on the rest of us!’

‘Or before she can infect us!’ Mistress Widders squared her shoulders, lifted her chin and deliberately stepped into the mob’s path. She stared them down and they quailed before her.

‘How dare you!’ she shouted at them. Then she pointed an accusing finger at Darus. ‘You! Why didn’t you bring Norfred’s body here for care? You were too busy stirring up your gang, is that it?’
‘There is justice to be done,’ the Gang-leader replied smugly. ‘And we should see to that justice quickly, else we do Norfred’s memory a disservice. Isn’t that right, men?’

‘Ayeee!’ the mob chorused angrily behind him.

‘It is just one man’s word against another’s,’ Mistress Widders said with a shake of her head. ‘Gang-leader or not, man or woman, when there’s a trial one miner’s word has as much weight as any other’s.’

But Darus had gained his position by dint of his shrewdness and was not about to let this woman take the momentum out of his mob. ‘One man’s word, she says. One woman’s word, she says! But I ask you this, men: is that freak born of any man or woman? You’ve seen how the monster walks through walls! It isn’t natural! Is it natural? Answer me! Is it natural?’

‘Nooo!’

‘Now stand aside, woman, or be put aside!’ Darus said through the din and stepped forward with intent.

Freda panicked as she saw him take that step. He’d moved forward in exactly the same way when he’d struck down Norfred. She could not let him do the same to Mistress Widders, would not let him do it!

Releasing a roar of rage, Freda rushed at the mob. How she hated the others now.

‘Freda, no!’ Mistress Widders cried, but she had already been pushed to the side by miners eager to reach the creature they believed to be a killer.

Freda smashed into them, immediately knocking two burly men to the floor. She hammered her fists into chins and torsos, snapping necks and shattering ribs. The point of a pickaxe came down on the back of her head and she staggered, slowing for a moment. A flaming brand was thrust into her face and she was blinded. Blows rained down on her from all sides and she was kept off balance. She was forced onto one knee and had to use her arms to cover her head so she could find a moment’s respite.

It was tempting to give up, to admit that it was her laziness that had killed Norfred. Perhaps she did deserve to be punished. Maybe then it would all stop, all the fear, sadness, pain and ugly words. Maybe then she would stop and become stone and slurry. Maybe she would be thrown into the bottomless pit and she would finally see her beloved Norfred again.

‘Stop it! Shame on you! You’re nothing more than murderers yourselves! Look at yourselves. The Overseer will be told of this!’ someone was shouting. Was it Mistress Widders?

But she had promised Norfred she would go to the top of the mine and find his son. And Mistress Widders had said Norfred was watching over her. She could not bear the thought of letting him down again.

Gritting her teeth so hard that she chipped them, she surged back to her feet and bludgeoned the miners nearest to her to the ground. She clapped her hands on either side of another’s head and crushed his skull. Spraying blood filled the air and covered her face, until the red liquid was running down her facial channels and into her mouth. It tasted good and only increased her hunger.

‘Use your torches!’ Darus cried. ‘Go for her all at once! Now!’

She swept them aside and trod heavily on those unfortunate enough to lose their footing.

Yells and screams echoed and boomed through the mine as if some gigantic beast had been uncovered and the entire place was collapsing. People began to run, and Freda went after them.

She lumbered down tunnels, through the home chamber and then made for the steep incline up which only the sun-metal and Darus were ever allowed. Her lungs were burning painfully now but she did not slow. She hurled herself forward, not caring that chunks of thick skin were torn away on outcroppings or where the walls of the passage narrowed.

‘What in the name of the Overlords is amiss down there?’ called a deep voice from up ahead. ‘Answer me.’

Freda growled and burst up through the opening. A large bearded ogre of a man reared back from her and raised his spear shod with glowing sun-metal to the ready position.
‘What, have the Underlords driven this horror out from among them? What have you done with Gang-leader Darus, fiend?’

Then he lunged forward powerfully with his weapon and impaled her through the shoulder. Her skin was no defence against the terrible burning metal and she bellowed in agony and fear. The passage of the sun-metal blade left energy trails in the air that scored across her vision. Thick black blood bubbled out of her wound and sizzled as it met the spear. Acrid smoke billowed around her and she found it hard to breathe.

The Overseer yanked his weapon free and prepared to plunge it back into her, but she cringed away and fell back into the rock for refuge. She moved through the thickness as quickly as she could and pushed upwards.

She soon began to slow, as exhaustion, blood loss and shock overtook her, but she did not stop climbing. Ever higher. Her head swam, but she dared not stop for fear she would lose her sense of up and down. She had visions of becoming disorientated and ending up back at the lowest levels of the mine, perhaps even plummeting into the bottomless pit and a hell of eternal punishment.
The rock began to change, to become softer, and she realised she must be coming close to the top of the mine and whatever lay beyond. There were strange wriggling things in the soft mulch that replaced the rock, but they seemed harmless. Surely these small things were not the Overlords, were they? What were they then? They burrowed, tunnelled and scurried, but largely ignored her and refused to answer any of the questions she asked.

There was more water here, and the mulch clogged her ears, nose and eyes. She didn’t like it, and it took everything she had not to start thrashing around in panic. She kicked violently and propelled herself further upwards, where it was drier again. At least the wet mulch had soothed her troublesome wound somewhat. Now, there was almost as much air as mulch making up the thickness.
And then she broke through into the largest and brightest cavern she’d ever seen. She glimpsed a large shining disc of sun-metal somewhere far away and high up but was otherwise blinded, even when her eyes were shut as tightly as possible. She felt like she was falling upwards as she left the thickness. She did not understand anything she heard or smelt and her skin felt like it was constantly shifting around independently of the rest of her because it was never the same temperature all over.

She had entered the most terrible place of the Overlords, a place that was a hell of constant warring. So there was hell below and a hell above. She was tempted to return to the limbo of the rock between the two hells, but Mistress Widders had said the tireless miners of the Overlords would eventually find her there. She had promised Norfred she would suffer this upper hell to find his son, so suffer it she would. She now knew that the fear, sadness, pain and ugly words never stopped and were the nature of existence for creatures such as she. Why else would she be allowed such strength and such a thick skin?