Authors: Roderick Gordon,Brian Williams
“Who’s going to stop them?” Drake said, repeating his father’s words. “
bloody well are.”
Elliott rushed forward and flung her arms around him, then she stepped back, a huge grin on her face. It was a flash of the old Elliott — the Elliott that Will and Chester had been missing so much. “You look like a real renegade now,” she said, chuckling. “A mean and nasty one at that.”
“Hah! But look at you,” he replied, admiring her dress and the way she’d done her hair. “Quite the young lady.” Drake moved into the room, greeting the boys, Mrs. Burrows, and Mr. Rawls, and then took his place next to Parry.
“So you’ve been allowed into the inner sanctum.” Drake flicked his eyes around the room before addressing them again. “Some late-breaking news for you,” he began. “Just before dawn, there were simultaneous strikes on television transmission centers, Internet hubs, and several of the main phone exchanges.”
“That’s why we couldn’t get anything on TV,” Chester said.
“Quite so — it’s denial of service — the Styx are targeting our comms and information hubs. And it’s really bad down there in London, I can tell you. People are running scared — there’s panic-buying in the shops, which aren’t being restocked. And public services are erratic, to say the least — streets are piled high with rubbish, schools have been shut, and hospitals are being run by skeleton staff. And there’ve even been a couple of power outages — whole areas of London have had intermittent electrical supplies for the last week. Yes, it’s really rough down there. And there’s also the odd rumor or two knocking around that a number of cabinet ministers have gone missing.”
“Decapitation. Textbook stuff,” Parry put in. Will and Chester glanced toward each other as they both wondered if he was referring to his favorite tome on insurgency by Frank Kitson. Parry drew his hand across his throat. “You remove those at the top —
— and the rest of the country —
— hasn’t got any idea how to organize itself.”
“Except that in all likelihood the head will be put back on,” Drake said, “but it’ll be a Styx head.”
“I don’t understand. With what’s happening, can’t we just go to the authorities and tell them who’s behind it?” Chester suggested.
“That would be a very quick way to get us all killed,” Drake answered him. “The problem is you can’t tell who’s been got at already. You don’t know who you can trust.”
Parry clapped his hands together. “I do,” he said. “It’s time to wake up some old ghosts.”
Drake met eyes with his father as if he knew what he was referring to, then held a finger up as he remembered something. “Talking of old ghosts, I’m forgetting my manners,” he said as he strode back to the doorway. He was gone for a second, then reappeared with a man with a hood over his head. Everyone in the room knew what that felt like — Drake had insisted they wear them when he’d driven them to his father’s estate.
The man’s hands were bound together with a plastic tie, which Drake sliced through with his knife. Then, with a dramatic flourish, he whipped the hood off.
There was a sharp intake of breath from Will and Elliott.
“Colonel!” the girl exclaimed, immediately recognizing who it was even though he was dressed in an expensively tailored but rather ill-fitting double-breasted city suit.
“That’s the New Germanian who helped you?” Chester said to Will, who didn’t respond as he stared at the man distrustfully. Although Colonel Bismarck had delivered him and Elliott from the clutches of the Styx in one of his helicopters, Will knew the only reason he was now Topsoil was that he must have been part of the attacks in the city.
The Colonel blinked in the unaccustomed light as he stepped fully into the room. With a formal bow and a click of his heels, he took Elliott’s hand. “An honor to see you again,” he said, then acknowledged Will, who made no move to shake hands with him as he continued to eye the man with undisguised suspicion.
“It could be a setup — a Styx trap,” Will said. “You should never have brought him here. He’s been Darklit.”
On the contrary, Drake appeared to be completely relaxed about his presence. “Yes, although he must have been heavily programmed, it seems that a blow to the head snapped him out of it. He saw what the Styx were doing to his men — using them to do their dirty work — and for that he wants revenge.”
Colonel Bismarck nodded as Drake went on, “And, yes, you’re right, Will. The Colonel’s aware he could be a risk to us. He’s agreed that he’s going to be kept under lock and key while he’s here.” Drake glanced at the map on the wall. “Particularly now he’s got an idea where we are.”
Parry was regarding the Colonel with interest. “
,” he said. It was apparent that he recognized another military man like himself.
,” Colonel Bismarck replied.
“And how did you come across the Colonel?” Parry asked his son.
“Someone here was a bit free and easy with the emergency number to my secret server.” Drake smiled. “Luckily, the Colonel had it on a scrap of paper tucked in his belt kit, and the Styx didn’t find it.”
“You hope,” Will said under his breath.
Drake ignored the comment. “And the Colonel left a message for the certain someone in this room.”
Everyone glanced at each other with bemusement until Elliott spoke up. On the receiving end of a sharp look from Will, she mumbled, “I was hoping he’d never need to use it. But I had a hunch that he and his men would show up here on the surface before too long.”
Will was about to say something, but Drake got in first. “Well, I’m just glad you did, Elliott. The Colonel gives us another card in our forthcoming fight with the Styx. And we’ve got a pretty lousy hand at the moment.”
A mile away, Bartleby was scaling an ancient oak, his long claws gouging into the bark as he went higher and higher. He finally reached a cleft in the trunk, then meowed down to Colly, who meowed back and immediately began to climb after him. When she, too, had reached the cleft, Bartleby edged along a bough that overhung the perimeter wall to Parry’s estate. The humans might have understood how important it was that they didn’t wander too far, but this was meaningless to the Hunters, with their voracious appetite for fresh prey.
Left largely to their own devices since being let loose in the grounds, they’d had the time of their lives mopping up Parry’s grouse, which he bred specially for the shooting season. In fact, the rather dopey birds had had very little idea what had hit them as the two cats stalked and ate their way through almost the whole population. And now that the grouse were rather thin on the ground, it was the Hunters’ natural instinct to hunt farther afield.
Once he was over the top of the wall, Bartleby continued a little farther, the bough bending under his and Colly’s combined weight. He flicked his broad head, indicating to Colly that she should jump first. She’d have smiled if she’d been able. Bartleby was such a considerate mate — he didn’t want her to harm herself by leaping from too great a height, particularly not in her condition.
She landed safely, but her departure caused the branch to spring up. Caught on the hop, Bartleby was forced to jump before he was ready. His tail spinning wildly to try to control the fall, he touched down with an ungainly thump. Right away, Colly scampered over to him to rub her cheek affectionately on his.
Bartleby let out a small whine and, like any male, milked the moment for all the sympathy he could get from his partner. He made a big show of licking the pad on his forepaw where it had been hurt by a sharp stone. After a few seconds of this, Colly had had enough and cuffed him gently on the head.
That did it — Bartleby concentrated on the business in hand. First thing first, he chose a suitable spot to cock his leg and spray with copious amounts of urine. After the new territory was well and truly marked, he began to advance with his nose to the ground as he relied on his highly developed sense of smell to locate their next meal.
But it wasn’t easy — they were on the fringes of a dense pine forest that extended up the hill before them, and the aromatic tang given off by the decaying needles on its floor made it tricky for him to pick up a trail. But this didn’t deter him in the slightest. Although the Hunters had trapped only a single roe deer that had made the fatal error of taking a shortcut across Parry’s estate, they’d caught glimpses of a herd of them grazing in this forest. Saliva hung in necklaces from the Hunters’ maws at the prospect of more of the delicious venison. But, for Bartleby, the ultimate prize would be the stag he’d heard at nightfall as it made its distinctive roaring sound to keep its harem of females together.
Bartleby ascended the hill, crossing back and forth over the ground as he attempted to pick up a scent trail. Colly followed, but made sure she maintained a gap of twenty feet between herself and Bartleby. Every so often, they’d stop to seek each other out through the trunks of the pines.
Parry and Drake would have been proud of their tactical skills; the way the cats worked was to perform a pincer movement on their unsuspecting prey, surrounding it back and front. The one Hunter would charge in, and the prey would panic and bolt straight into the open jaws of the other Hunter.
Somewhere a bird squawked, and the sound of its wings beating against high branches made both Hunters peer above themselves. But then, as a breeze filtered through the trees, Bartleby fixed his eyes on the slope ahead. He slunk down, his nose twitching as he surveyed the area. A flick of his ears told Colly all she needed to know.
He was onto something.
Bartleby’s shoulder blades rose and fell as he began to advance, carefully positioning each paw as he went.
Colly soon lost sight of him in the trees. Still she waited — hunting was all about patience and timing. Then, when she’d decided he must be in position, she began to edge forward, making no sound above the rustle of the branches in the wind.
She froze as she heard a small thud. A cone had dropped to the ground. It was nothing to worry about, so she began to move again.
Unfortunately the trees farther up the slope weren’t quite so numerous and didn’t provide much cover for her. So she took her time. She didn’t want to spook the prey too early — if it didn’t bolt back to where Bartleby was waiting, but to the left or right, the game was up. Their quarry would slip the net. But then she saw a felled tree on the ground ahead. She adjusted her path accordingly so the prey on the other side wouldn’t spot her.
Her chest was brushing the forest floor, she was so low to the ground.
What was odd was that she couldn’t get a clear picture of the prey from its scent. Both she and Bartleby were familiar with the smell of deer urine and droppings, and although there was the faintest whiff of these, they weren’t as strong as she would have expected.
But maybe it was a lone deer, and not the full herd. She didn’t mind; a single animal would provide them with ample meat for the night.
When she judged she must have gone far enough, she dug her feet into the ground in readiness. Then, hissing and growling and making as much noise as she could, she tore ahead at full speed.
Limiters aren’t like Topsoil soldiers.
Whatever environment they operate in, they live completely within it — using, eating,
what’s around them. The pair of Limiters smelled like the pine forest because they’d been hiding out in it for weeks. To sustain themselves, they’d eaten not just rabbit and any birds they could catch, but also fungi and the other abundant flora. In comparison to the Deeps, it was a veritable fast-food outlet. And, once or twice, they’d dined on the raw meat from a roe deer, the faint traces of which Bartleby had detected.
Colly had left the ground with enough momentum to clear the felled tree when she saw something that didn’t fit.
The glint of glass in a telescope. It was mounted on a tripod.
And from behind the telescope appeared the Limiter’s skull-like face.
A millisecond later she saw the flash of his scythe.
With a warning meow, she arched her back and flailed her legs in a desperate bid to alter her trajectory.
The felled trunk was in front of her. If only she could bring herself low enough to land on it — rather than go over it — she could use it to spring away.
The Limiter had the scythe raised, ready.
As he began to whip his arm to throw it at her, she heard Bartleby’s rasping growl. In order to save his mate, he’d attacked. In a blur of gray skin and bunched muscles, he cannoned straight into the Limiter’s back, his claws piercing deep into the man’s neck.
But the scythe was already airborne.
With a single rotation, the gleaming blade nicked Colly’s flank. Glancing off her, it continued for a few feet until it imbedded itself in a tree.
It was only a superficial wound, but she still howled with shock.
Hearing this, Bartleby became a whirling tornado of limbs. He wrapped himself around the Limiter’s head, raking at the soldier’s face with his hind legs. The Limiter was wearing some form of woolly hat, and Bartleby was about to bite down on it when the second Limiter thrust his scythe into the Hunter’s neck, at the base of his skull. It was a skillful and well-aimed strike, the blade severing the spinal cord.