It’s pretty tense as we walk out of town.
Behind us, we can hear the commotion as people attend to the ponytail guy with the speared shin. Everyone we pass glares at us now with undisguised loathing. They can’t know what’s going on back there, but they have the nerve to assume it’s something to do with us.
I’d be angry if they weren’t right.
I’m angry anyway, they’re a town of tools. While I’m familar with people who hate anyone different to them, this is the first time I’ve encountered it in an entire community. It’s not like we’re that different. Okay, yes, my skin is peach coloured where theirs is blue, and Nom’s is a bit wormy. Get over it.
And then there’s their diet, I can’t even comprehend what’s going on there.
Maybe I’m just prejudiced against cannibals. Bad Shoo.
Up ahead, there’s a gate. No wall, they don’t need it as the slope falls away on either side, just a gate. It’s made from sticks, twine and chunks of the local stony metal. The warm stream runs under it. It looks rickety as anything, desperately cobbled together from whatever they could find. I’m going to call it the Crap Gate.
“I’ve never been outside of town,” Nom says, nervously.
“It’ll be fine,” I tell her, reaching down and placing a reassuring hand on her shoulder. “Do you know what’s out there?”
“Well,” she gives this some thought. “There’s snow,” she says, seriously.
“Snow way!” I joke and grin at her.
Shoo – able to lighten any mood with a well-judged quip.
Nom just looks at me, perhaps with a little concern.
Fine. I clear my throat and put on my serious face, “Anything else?” I ask.
“The other towns,” she says.
“Okay. How far?”
Also fine. I’ve never frozen to death before. Perhaps it’ll be fun. We get closer to the gate, crunching over the dusting of flakes frozen to the rocky ground. People still glare. We still ignore them.
We come to the end of the long terrace building. With it out of the way, I can see that we’re quite high up and there’s a lot of snow below. That’s it. Dunes and dunes of snow. Can you have snow-dunes? Well, we’ve got them. It’s like a desert made of snow out there.
On our left, before the Crap Gate, is a small, squat building. It sits at an odd angle in the ground and consists of a tower, fatter at its base, with three smaller, squatter towers attached to the right. It’s made of the same dark, metallic stone as the huge terrace buildings we just passed. The squat towers have markings carved into them that pulse with a faint blue light.
One of the squat towers has a crack in it and is jetting a small geyser of steaming water. It’s not the source of the stream, as that comes running through the gate, but it contributes to it. I suspect there might be similar towers further up the hill somewhere.
“What’s that?” I ask Nom.
“The True Portal,” Nom says with some reverence in her voice. “Pappi says our home is the other side of it and when we die, that’s when we step through.”
Interesting. Doesn’t look much like a portal to me but what do I know? It vaguely reminds me of something, like a crude stone representation of a thing I know, but I can’t place it.
It’ll come to me.
The actual gate doesn’t look much like a gate either. On top of it there are two sentries, more of the little blue people who watch us with wary and unfriendly eyes. Also, crossbows. Which they’re holding, ready to fire. Both bring them around to bear on us.
Nom presses nervously against my leg.
“We’re just leaving, nothing to worry about,” I call up to them. “Or shoot at.”
“Be sure you do,” one says.
“Good luck on the path,” the other adds. “You are wise to take food.”
I feel Nom bristle. I quickly clamp my hand over her mouth in case it gets us into more trouble so I’m little surprised to find myself snapping, “she’s not food! She’s my friend.”
Nom’s fearful clutching at my leg becomes a hug.
One of the sentries raises her eyebrows.
“Weirdo,” the other says.
I grit my teeth. On one hand, I guess to them me saying Nom is my friend would be like someone holding up a cupcake and claiming it’s their mum. On the other hand, I really want to shoot the pair of them in the crotch.
It’s quite hard not to. If I was better with my crossbow, I think I might have already done it.
This anger I’ve been feeling since Daisy died, and before really, is going to get me into trouble. I don’t know what to do about it. I sigh. There’ll probably be time to figure that out on the road. Gods know how long it’ll be until the next town.
We pass under the gate. Again, if I had the ability, I’d set the ruddy thing on fire, sentries and all. The thought alone warms me.
Beyond the gate, the stream and its thin abundance of life and vegetation run up the hill and disappear over the rise. It may be a long walk, but at least we shouldn’t get lost. We trudge upwards for a while. The snow is thicker here. I turn to give the sentries a sarcastic wave.
As I do, I get a view of the town from a distance. From here, I can see that the pair of huge buildings on either side of the stream are not buildings at all, not exactly.
They’re a giant cylinder broken in two. A container.
I look again at the little building with its conical tower and three smaller towers and blink. Everything changes and refocuses, without changing at all, and I’m seeing something new.
“Huh,” I say, putting two and two together, then adding some more twos.
“What?” says Nom.
“That explains the cannibalism,” I muse out loud. “They probably didn’t have much choice. Not at first anyway.”
“What?” says Nom, tugging at my arm.
“It’s not a town, Nom, or wasn’t originally,” I tell her. “It’s a crash site.”