The sentry in the chair was snoring softly. The other one swiftly unlocked both cell doors. The young red haired man slipped his hands from the hand of his mate and exited his cell.
"That was very kind of you," he said. "But if you remember doing it, you will regret it, so you will not remember. All that you will remember, is that I spoke with you, and I made you go to sleep."
"Yes," the man said. Though deeply hypnotized, his voice and bearing were natural, not fixed. "Yes, I see. I'll just go to sleep now, and I won't remember any of it. You go on about your business."
"Thank you." He pulled open the door of his mate's cell, and she stood and joined him. The sentry who had unlocked the doors returned to his place, then slumped down to the floor in sleep.
"But there's a lock on the outermost door!" his mate told him.
He let out a sigh. "These people spend a good deal of their time locking things!" he exclaimed. "We'll have to send out a distress call on the intercom system, and somebody will come down and open the door. Most of the people here did not see us in our uniforms. Let's put on their shirts and hats. Maybe we can fool the next watch just long enough for us to get away."
* * * * *
"And now, my delicate one," he said. "First the hair and clothing, and then the fragrant skin." He had the knife in his hand, but he stooped, gathered her in his arms, and lifted her. But suddenly a blast of cold air swallowed up Sarah Jane so completely that it took her breath away.
As she recovered from the shock, she opened her eyes and felt an incredible, vast, desolate emptiness settle onto her and cover her.
Weeks ago, when she had at first experienced it, it had terrified her, but now she willingly opened herself up to it. "Oh Fomalhaut, whatever you intend will be good and right," she thought. And she willingly emptied herself of her expectations. Anything that Fomalhaut did would be good.
"Sarah," a kind voice said, and she opened her eyes to find herself in the car park, with the sparkling eyes of an old woman looking down at her. "How much better you comprehend me now, dear mouse. It's far easier to meet with me, isn't it?""
"Oh Jeanne, you found me!" And Sarah actually forgot the terror and despair of the previous moment. She buried her face into the neck of the old woman and the sweet, life-giving fragrance of flowers and rejuvenation fell on her. "Jeanne, will you save me from him?"
"Oh yes. Yes, little mouse."
She heard what she took to be hail, and she realized that the car park was awhirl with a swirling storm of broken glass. Jeanne was holding her, but as Sarah regained her composure and sat up, Jeanne let her go, then unfolded a very conventional looking umbrella. She put it up over them. The glass shards danced around them and pelted the umbrella with enough force to rip it apart, yet they bounced off.
"You do have inclement weather here in London," Jeanne said.
"Jeanne, what do you want me to do?" Sarah Jane asked. "I want to stay with you, or at least understand you. Who are you? Who is the creature that wants to consume me?"
"I am the mouth of the fish that forever receives the flow of mercy that is poured out, Sarah Jane," Jeanne said. "And from me, an ocean is poured forth. But this that pursues you is what your people call a monster. But I have covered you with my emptiness; I have swallowed you, and he cannot consume emptiness, and he cannot consume me."
"Do I have to give myself to him?"
"No, sweet mouse. That was his lie. He smelled my fragrance upon you, and he knew there was a hope of mercy and healing endowed upon you. So he hoped that you could heal him, but you cannot, even though my fragrance is on you. Yet, what would he have to lose by consuming you? But there is another whose destiny can be helped if you help him, and it is to him that I must send you, before the conjunction is over. Here come your escorts now."
The swirling storm of glass was subsiding, and Sarah Jane dimly realized that whatever had attacked with such furious anger had depleted itself. Indeed, in the presence of Jeanne, Sarah Jane sensed very sharply that whoever had pursued her was deeply wounded somehow, or else malformed. Its strength was not at a fixed level, but had to be summoned up, and could be expended and exhausted.
Two familiar figures ran across the dark car park. But from the opposite end, the UNIT vehicles swiftly pulled in. Jeanne stood, and Sarah Jane stood with her.
"This is not my world," Jeanne said. "And here I don't yet have the honor that I have in other worlds, among my citizens. In the last hour, when the light streamed in alignment, I have been at my most powerful here. But my influence is waning already. You must go now, and these two will take you."
The two youths ran up and bowed to Jeanne, their hands clasped together, but the old Scottish woman spoke quickly. "You can form the path if you act now," she said.
"Yes, Greatly Sustained," the red haired young man said, and he clapped his hands together and called a quick, inarticulate bark up to the moon.
Instantly, a brilliant white path opened before them, and it led upward, into the night sky. It seemed to go on forever, so far up ahead that Sarah could not see the end of it, but it pointed toward the moon.
"Sarah Jane, will you come?" he asked urgently.
"Go," Jeanne said.
"Please," the young female said.
Sarah felt a moment's fear, and Jeanne said, "Sorrow and pain and the grief of death lie at either end of this road, Sarah Jane: here if you stay and there if you go. But the way for you to take is to follow it, and at least be the master of yourself. There you will learn more of what you begged to know, by embracing what must come with complete willingness, for there is a mercy in it, though you will suffer, and weep, and shed your blood."
This promise chilled Sarah Jane, but the voice and the eyes that delivered it were more kind and were filled with a mercy that she knew she could barely comprehend. "Yes," she said. "Will you come?"
"I will see you there, later. And I will help you at the return."
The men were piling out of the vans and jeeps, pointing at this strange manifestation of the light from the moon, and the ravenous creature that had nearly gotten her was gone, exhausted by its unsuccessful attack.
"Quickly!" the lad said. Then Jeanne was gone, and---with Sarah between the two youths---they all interlocked their arms, and quickly ran up the white road.
* * * *
From the car park, the white road had looked like a steep incline, and the ends of it had come together before it visibly reached the full moon. But once Sarah was one the white road, walking between her two escorts, or captors, the road was level, and she saw no single moon, but a sky dotted with lights, and over all three of them a vast silvery glow was generated.
"How is this done?" she asked.
"For special travel, the barrier of distance and time is removed," the male said.
"Look, there is our world. It's much softer than your own," the little female told her. The young female still had a faint mark on her chin from being hit, but she seemed to bear Sarah Jane no ill will.
The white road now seemed to descend through a bright glow, and as they passed into this glow, Sarah Jane saw a new landscape all around her, but it did not feel as though she were walking through the sky. It only seemed like a steep hill, and then they were on level ground, and the white road was gone. They were on the bank of a great, rushing river. All in all, she felt that she had taken about twenty steps. Yet she was in a new world, a world where there were no cities or towns evident.
She saw that the forest was dark in its overall color: broad leafed trees with foliage that was deep green, midnight blue, and even black. The boles of the trees were gray, sometimes gray tinted with brown, or charcoal in color. The forest, she realized, would be exceedingly dark, but she and her two escorts had alighted from the celestial road into a sandy clearing. Where the soil was less sandy, luxuriant patches of ground cover grew. She saw that this foliage was a very tightly kinked type of grass---swaths of gray, blue, and pale brown that had a very woolly look to it, and a deep softness. But the clearing was hemmed in by the trees, and between the trees there grew a pale grey grass rather like very high ferns or perhaps very flimsy bamboo. At a certain height, the fragile blades bent back on themselves, but when they grew in clumps, they presented a soft wall that obscured the way ahead. All of this lay before them, but behind them was a rushing river, a great and mighty thing, impossible to cross without a sturdy boat and strong rudder.
"To the elders, there is no real distance, or space," the young man told her. He was busy pulling off his clothes, and his mate was doing the same. Underneath their outer garments, they were clad in a close covering of wool-like hair. They quickly undressed as though it were a great relief to get out of the clothing. For a moment Sarah felt embarrassed, but then as their clothing dropped away, so too did the earth-made associations that she had put on them.
The young male's natural coat was reddish, as his hair, and he had obviously trimmed it back to allow for clothing, for now he scrubbed his legs, chest, and arms to fluff it out again, and she realized that even though the backs of his hands all the way to his wrists were bare, he showed a faint stubble where he had shaved off the hair to pass as human.
Only his face seemed naturally bare, and the center line of his chest, and a dish-shaped patch on his belly. The little female's coat was cream colored. A good part of dealing with naked people, Sarah knew, was knowing where not to look, and if you happened to put your eyes in the wrong place, you had to refrain from displaying shock. But she was surprised to see that though they had recognizable genitals, neither of them had matured. Yet there was something about both of them that spoke of adulthood bursting out of them, and they called each other mates.
The young male obviously read her surprise, and he realized why. "We are betrothed," he said. "But we cannot physically mate, not until the transformation. Then we shall have children of our own." Then he made introductions: "This, my mate and the co-regent of this world, is Nitham. I have been named Achernar."
Sarah Jane still had her clothing on, and she wondered if everybody in this world did without. She hoped that she would not be expected to pick up the tribal customs. The best way to find out, she knew, was to view other people here. "Do you still live with your parents?" she asked.
They glanced at each other, puzzled. Then the little female, Nitham, said gently, "We are the parents, Sarah Jane Smith."
"But you have parents," she said.
"Do you mean Toliman himself?" the male, Achernar, asked her. "He named us and gave us our sovereignty and our beloved union, but we did not proceed from his loins, nor from his hands."
"You don't have a mother and father?" she asked.
"We were ordained the mother and father," he told her.
"But who else lives here?"
Nitham looked at her mate, and a glance passed between them, but Achernar said, "Just Toliman and the two of us. There was another. His name was Alphard when he was one of us."
She was puzzled. "Where is he now?"
"On your world," Nitham said.
"The one who occupied the house?" she asked. "That's killed all those people?"
Achernar nodded. "But we do not comprehend his form any longer. Your friend---the tall white one. He seems to understand better than we do."
She was trying to take this in, when they heard loud hoofbeats approaching.
"Oh Toliman!" little Nitham cried. "If all goes well, we shall never leave this place again!"
Sarah had expected to see a creature on horseback approach. The noise grew quite loud, and she felt a sudden nervous apprehension. Jeanne had spoken of grief and pain, and it had been easy to consent to this journey after the amazing rescue and under the influence of gentle Fomalhaut's assurances and the intoxication of her presence. Yet nothing had really been explained, and no assurances were given. Sarah suddenly realized that she was effectively marooned on a distant planet, that the Doctor had no idea of all that had happened to her, and that he was in enough danger himself, left to fight this Alphard: the evil one who had nearly devoured her.
A great figure burst from the curtain of fern-like cover, and Nitham, like a little girl, flung herself at a massive, hideous figure with four hooves, a barrel chest of a man, and a horned, gargoyle head that evidenced not a trace of human ancestry.
"Oh Toliman!" she exclaimed. "Master! We've come home! And we brought her with us!"
"Toliman!" the young male said, and he bowed deeply. "Here she is."
* * * *
The Doctor looked around at the destroyed windshields. A wind was still swirling around them, but the howling cacophony was over. And Sarah Jane had disappeared. He squinted and stared at the place where he had last seen her. To him, it had looked as though she were taken between the two escaped prisoners, and the three of them had marched into some sort of opening in the very fabric of the night. There had been a lingering white ray from the moon above down to them, and they had somehow stepped into it. And now they were gone. And for just a moment, he had thought that another figure had been there, a figure with an umbrella.
He crossed the car park, the shards of glass crunching under his shoes. The Brigadier followed. "Do you have any explanations?" t he Brigadier asked. The Doctor stooped down and picked up an object left discarded on the ground. An umbrella. He stood and looked at it, then experimentally opened it and closed it.
"The signal just disappeared from the detection devices," he said.
"Could it be destroyed somehow?" The Brigadier was not too hopeful about this, but he pursued it. "Maybe got too close to something that wiped it out? Power supplies? The wind?"
The Doctor glanced at the building. "I think it may be hiding."
"I'm not sure. It doesn't seem to like a lot of signal generation, so I would think not. You'd better keep the personnel in their safety areas, and we can sweep through the building and use the magnetic pulse punchers to drive it off if it's in there." He looked down at the umbrella and then looked around the car park. "But I think it's retreated."
"So do we hunt for it again?"
"Send the men out again if you like." The Doctor looked at him. "I think you'll find that your prisoners are gone, and so is Sarah Jane."
"What?' And Lethbridge Stewart, who had not arrived in time to see the strange exodus, was amazed. "How do you know?"
"I saw them disappear, right here," the Doctor said. "I need to get a look at the ephemeris again. And I'll need for you to commandeer some of the bodies from the police. We need one or two of them right here, at UNIT, where I can run some tests on them and make some determinations about what we're fighting."
"Right Doctor. I'll see to it as soon as we complete the sweep of the building." The Brigadier hesitated. "Do you think Miss Smith is in acute danger?"
The Doctor frowned. "We're all in danger. She's probably safer away from here, where this entity seems to be haunting her. But I plan to track her down and bring her back. Those two adolescents wanted her for something, and now they've got her. And I'm not sure she went willingly."
* * * *
Sarah backed up, ready to flee, but for the first moment, the enormous hoofed creature was taken up by little Nitham. He rested his huge hands on either side of her face and then lifted her chin. He peered at her upturned face more closely.
Sarah instantly sensed that he knew Nitham had been struck. "Master, wisdom comes at such a price," Nitham said to the gargoyle face, her tone one of lament, and her eyes sparkled with tears one more time. She lifted her cream colored arms and stroked his wrists.
The great creature bent his massive, ugly head, and touched the side of his face to her head. He stroked her cheek and again touched the place on her chin where the Doctor had struck her. This apparent tenderness amazed, fascinated, and horrified Sarah Jane. She realized that she had no means of retreat. The only place to run was right into the range of this tremendous beast's reach. As for Nitham, she had apparently expected and needed this display of sympathy, and once she had received it, she was satisfied.
Next the great centaur gestured for Achernar to stand, and he greeted him with a rough embrace around his head and a scrubbing of his clawed hands across Achernar's wooly back. And then he turned to Sarah Jane.
Sarah's knees went weak again, and this time she didn't think she could still them. Anybody who has read mythology would assume that centaurs were large creatures, but she had never realized how large. His navel was at her chin, and so he looked down at her from a great height---almost eight feet tall at the top of his horned head.
The expressionless face looked down at her eyes, his own eyes glittering and unreadable, and then Sarah Jane saw that the creature was bleeding down one foreleg. Yet neither of the others had commented on this. He surveyed her eyes and then reached a clawed hand to take her under the chin. She didn't let herself retreat, for he had not yet offered to hurt her.
But she dropped her eyes, not willing to encourage any inspection of her. Sudden sweat trickled into the enormous scrape across her back, burning the opened skin. He lifted her face by the chin, and she realized that his great hands were more massive than the Doctor's hands, and each thick finger was crowned by a thick claw. He could rake and tear a human into shreds very quickly.
He abruptly released her. And it seemed that he realized that his advances to her were not welcome. "Why don't you go to him?" Achernar asked her. And Achernar seemed shocked.
Nitham stepped forward and touched the Centaur's shoulder. "Now I see why I was given the wisdom of being struck. It's because on her planet they hit strangers." She looked up at Toliman. The great creature turned his wide face to look down on Nitham as she spoke. "Master," Nitham said. "She thinks you may strike her down because her protector hit me."
The great beast regarded the little cream coated female for a moment, and then tossed his head as a means of nodding, and this gesture of gentle condescension and attention calmed Sarah Jane. Then Achernar said, "She has blood on her again." He pointed to the back of Sarah's shoulder. The creature called Toliman grunted with two or three short sounds, and Achernar and Nitham abruptly nodded, picked up their cast off clothing, and vanished into the trees, sent on some errand.
Toliman deliberately and with a certain horrible majesty stepped to the side and walked past Sarah, opening the way for her to flee if she chose, but as this gesture was so plainly a comment that the way was open, Sarah Jane didn't flee. On the very water's edge there were tiny wildflowers in bloom, a thin fringe of vibrant pinks, oranges, pale greens, and bright yellows. He bent at the waist, further than she would have thought he could have done, and snipped up several of them, gathering them in one clawed hand. Then he returned to her and cupped his hands towards her like a bowl.
She looked into his cupped hands and then looked up at his leathery face. He gestured at her hands with one of his hands. She got the idea, and she cupped her hands together. He dropped the shredded wildflowers into her hands, then he returned to the water, and scooped up a great handful. He returned to her and dropped this carefully into her cupped hands. Then he gestured that she should drink.
The water from the river smelled fresh and actually sounded clean from the mighty rushing noise, and as she looked at her cupped hands, the fragrance from the petals floating in the gathered water was so enticing that she suddenly drank the water and the petals together. The taste was of sweetness and a slight astringent quality that cleared the mind and senses. It was the most refreshing drink she had ever known. The hospitality was unmistakable.
"Thank you," she said to him. He tossed his head as a nod to her.
* * * *
Warrant Officer Benton poked his head into the lab. "Bodies are here, Doctor," he said. "Down in a morgue we set up off the cells."
"All right then." The Doctor had been poring over the ephemeris and other astronomical books. He stood up and followed Benton out.
"We've tracked all around the UNIT grounds and surrounding area," the soldier told the time lord. "No sign of the two escapees, or of Miss Smith."
"No, I think we can assume that all three of them are no longer any place nearby," the Doctor said. He followed Benton down the long hallway. It was now nearly two in the morning, and the building was silent. There were shifts working, of course, but the busyness of the day shift was gone.
They strode past the cell area, and Benton led him into the wide, empty room with the drain in the floor that was sometimes used as a temporary morgue.
"I left my case in the lab," the Doctor said.
"I'll get it!" And Benton hurried out.
There were three stretchers inside, but as the Doctor entered, he saw that only two were occupied. The other one was empty, though covered with a sheet.
"Who would take a body?" the Doctor asked aloud. The bodies, of course, had been in very bad condition. He stepped closer to see if it had collapsed and fallen to the floor. But it had not.
A sound at the door made him turn. "Benton---" he began, but he stopped. Inspector March, looking much the worse for his experiences, was standing in the doorway.
March's eyes were no longer small dried beads, but they had a glassy, unreal look to them. His clothing was in shreds, as the Doctor had last seen him in the school. And though he was not as dried out as the two corpses in the room, the texture of his skin was not correct for a living person. He looked as though he were made of shining plastic, as though the living moisture had been extracted from him and replaced with about half of the same volume of glycerin. It gave him a shrunken, shining, plump but misshapen look.
He entered the room by dragging his feet along.
"I am Inspector March," he said.
* * * *
The great centaur's gargoyle face was still unreadable. He lifted a heavy and clawed hand and pointed to Sarah Jane's shoulder and then to his own hairy back. He made a noise in his throat. Perhaps this was a language, but she wasn't sure. She supposed he was asking what happened to her.
"I was thrown down onto the ground," she said. "Onto my back. It broke the skin."
Now he approached with a judicious air, and though she tensed up, he extended his hands in the way of a person who is expert at looking at injury, like a medical doctor. He gently lifted her collar in back and then lifted the shirt away from the drying blood and glanced down at her back through the collar, but when he would have lifted off the shirt, she said quickly, "Please don't. Please no!" And she turned to him directly, her eyes pleading. He took his hands away.
He stepped back.
For a moment they regarded each other. She began to feel how isolated she was. Even Achernar and Nitham were gone, as merry as two little satyrs, their mission accomplished. He looked down and stepped back for a moment, giving her room, she thought. She plucked up the courage to be direct. "Achernar and Nitham said you wanted me to come here. Why? What do you want?"
He pointed to the sky. As she said nothing, he pointed off in one direction across the forest. She still had no idea what he was trying to indicate. At last he held one large hand flat, palm down, in front of him and brought the other, its fingers together, up underneath it and lifted the gathered hand straight up, showing a flower growing from the earth. He opened his fingers as he lifted his hand, to show it blooming.
"A flower?" she asked.
He next wrung his hands together, showing it destroyed, and he pointed to the gaping slit in his foreleg.
"I don't understand," she said.
For this he had no answer. After a long pause, he extended his clawed hand to her, open in invitation. She looked at it for a long moment and considered all that had happened to her, and all that she had been told in the few hurried moments before she had so rashly taken the white road. But there was no choice, for if there were other people on this planet, they were no where nearby. Hesitantly, she put her hand into his. He tossed his head. Then, moving with that same terrible majesty of his great hooves, he led her into the forest.
* * * *
The Doctor backed up, and though he was uncertain about the nature of the creature before him, he knew it was not Inspector March.
"Inspector March is dead," he said to it. "And you are some grisly imposter. Go back to your slab, sir. You are dead."
The nightmarish figure with its soft skin limped closer. The Doctor gave way before it, but found himself against the concrete wall of the morgue.
"I am Inspector March," it said. "I have come to arrest Sarah Jane Smith for the murder of Inspector Cole. Give her to me."
"Well you're a bit too late for that. She's not here."
The humor was lost on the zombie-like creature. It caught him by his wrist and its other hand lifted and seized his throat. The fingers were as soft as putty, but tight as cable.