Pyrgus stopped, locked by a weird, almost overpowering sensation of unease.
‘What’s the matter?’ Nymph asked at once.
‘Something’s wrong,’ Pyrgus said. By his reckoning they were very close to where they’d left the flyer, so close all he’d been thinking about was getting back. But now…
He looked around. The Trinians, who’d been escorting them cheerfully until now, had disappeared. The desert stretched endlessly behind them, rocky, desolate and bare.
‘Nagel…?’ he called out urgently.
The orange dwarf materialised at once from behind a rock. ‘Eeper dahn!’ he hissed, glaring.
Pyrgus looked at Nymph.
‘He wants you to be quiet,’ she told him.
‘Ask him what’s going on. There’s something wrong.’
Nymph started to speak, but before she could utter a word, Nagel put a finger to his lips, caught her by the hand and led her crouching up a rocky outcrop. Pyrgus stared after them for half a second, then followed.
It was almost a repeat of what had happened when they topped the rise and saw the Hael legions camped in the deep desert. Following on Nagel’s urgent signs, they raised their heads carefully.
A small contingent of men wearing the grey-black uniform of the elite Nighter Scout Regiment was moving grimly across the desert in the direction of Beleth’s waiting legions.
‘God of Light,’ groaned Pyrgus. ‘Those are messengers. Hairstreak’s joining up with Beleth. He has to be. We’ll be facing them both now.’ He looked around for Woodfordi. The palace needed to know about this new development at once.
Nagel said something in a whisper.
‘We must pull back from this position,’ Nymph translated. ‘There may be more following. If we stay here we’ll be discovered.’
The Trinian was already on his way to lower ground. Pyrgus and Nymph scrambled after him. For a frustrating fifty minutes they followed the Trinian tribe, moving silently from cover to cover, until Nagel called a halt in a shallow crater ringed by a sulphurous fumarole fog.
‘He says we’re safe here,’ Nymph explained.
Pyrgus’s nose wrinkled. ‘I can see why.’ To Woodfordi he said, ‘Can you talk to my sister – Queen Blue? Can you talk to her directly?’
Woodfordi shook his head. ‘Doubt it, sir. Her Majesty doesn’t usually have a CC handy. Word is she doesn’t hold with us for some reason, sir.’
‘OK, put me through to Madame Cardui again. She can relay the message.’
‘Yes, sir.’ Woodfordi sank down into his impossible squat and crossed his eyes. After a while he uncrossed them again. ‘Can’t seem to make the connection, sir.’
‘Why not?’ Pyrgus demanded. ‘Doesn’t the Painted Lady have her CC handy?’
‘It’s not that, sir. It’s Orion. He’s not responding.’
‘Who in Hael is Orion?’
Woodfordi said soberly, ‘Hardly in Hael, sir. He’s the Communications Angel. So it’s more like “Who in Heaven is Orion”, sir, if you get my meaning. Calls himself Military Guide and Spiritual Gatekeeper, but that’s only because he likes wearing uniform. Most of them go nude up there, on account of the balmy weather.’
Despite the urgency of his situation, Pyrgus frowned and said, ‘I didn’t know we were in touch with Heaven?’
‘Military secret, sir.’ Woodfordi tapped his nose. ‘ Need to know sort of thing. Shouldn’t really have told you, but I expect it’s all right, you being royal and all that.’
‘Why can’t you get through?’ Pyrgus asked, getting back reluctantly to the matter in hand.
‘Think it might be this place, sir,’ said Woodfordi earnestly. ‘Reception wasn’t great earlier, to tell you the truth. Lot of volcanic activity round here. Ground stresses always influence the energy flow, throw up trapped lightning fields. Affects the network. Sort of like transportation portals in reverse. I’ll keep trying if you like, sir, but my guess is it won’t improve until we get out of the deep desert.’
But suddenly Pyrgus wasn’t listening. He had the look of somebody struck by a sudden idea.
‘What?’ Nymph asked.
‘Portals!’ Pyrgus said. He looked around urgently. ‘Nagel, you called the demons Fluid Dark. Does that mean you’ve seen them in the desert before?’ That’s what it had to mean. Nobody had names for things they’d never seen before.
Nagel nodded. ‘Yar,’ he said.
‘Where do they come from?’ Pyrgus asked. He had the air of somebody pushing down a rising excitement.
Nagel pointed. ‘Ohr ere way yorboat hores alk sides tha ate if.’
Pyrgus’s ears must have been starting to attune because it almost made sense to him. But he turned to Nymph all the same.
‘Over there, the direction he’s pointing, about an hour’s walk away. Apparently it’s beside something they call the Great Cliff.’ She stared intently at Pyrgus. ‘What is it?’
‘Look,’ said Pyrgus excitedly. ‘There’s an army of demons in the desert: we saw that. But we never thought to ask how they got here. Well, did we?’
‘No…’ Nymph said uncertainly.
He gripped her shoulder. ‘It has to be portals. There’s no other way you could transport so many troops in so short a time. Well, you could ship them in, but not without being noticed. So it’s portals. But it can’t be the regular portals – we’d have known if they got them open again – right?’
‘Right…’ Nymph confirmed, even more uncertainly.
‘So Beleth must have set up new ones!’ Pyrgus exclaimed. ‘I know what Nagel means by the Great Cliff. It’s a geological feature in the deep desert, about as inaccessible and far away from anywhere as you’re likely to get. Perfect for Beleth’s portals and perfect for his demon troops – they like volcanic conditions. But don’t you see, Nymph …?’
‘See what, Pyrgus?’ Nymph asked him patiently.
Pyrgus was actually grinning. ‘We can’t do anything about the troops Beleth already has here. But if we sabotage the portals, we can stop him sending any more! No reinforcements. No fresh supplies. It could mean the difference between victory and defeat.’
Nymph looked interested at once. ‘Do you know how to get to this Great Cliff?’
Pyrgus shook his head. ‘No, but Nagel does – he knows this desert inside out. And his people might be able to help. Violet Trinians are warriors. They could support us if the portals are guarded. And Green Trinians are great with technical stuff – Innatus made that little clack, remember – they could help with the sabotage. This is an incredible opportunity, Nymph. All of us together could make such a difference. And if we move fast, we could do the job before nightfall.’ He turned to Nagel. ‘Will you do that, Nagel?’ he asked urgently. ‘Will you help us?’
‘Oh yar,’ Nagel said.