Riven groaned and leaned heavily against Gynnell’s shoulder. He was almost unconscious from shock and pain.

“Hold on a little longer,” he said to him. “Until we get down into the shelter.”

It was difficult. Gynnell crawled into the hole and urged Riven to crawl in after him. That much effort exhausted him. He couldn’t climb down the ladder. Gynnell positioned himself on it and then persuaded Riven to cling to his neck, piggy-back style. He climbed slowly down, desperately hoping his friend could hold on long enough to reach the bottom. He felt his hands slipping with every step and it was a relief when he reached the stone floor and was able to lay him down on the blankets they had left behind when they started their abortive trek so many hours ago.

He heard Mica helping Nico to climb down, too. It was dark on the ladder, so his blindness shouldn’t have been any additional problem, but his head was still hurting.

Two of them injured and they hadn’t even reached their destination, yet.

“Riven, listen to me,” Gynnell said to his friend. “You need medicine, and we don’t have any. You’ll die without help. The only chance you have is a level five trance. Can you do it?”

“Y... y...y....” Riven managed to reply. His teeth were clamped together in toxic shock. Gynnell touched his forehead and felt his mind, calming him and helping him find the way to the first level of meditative trance, then the second and third. He felt Riven’s heartbeat slow along with his lungs and his other organs. As he dropped lower he couldn’t help him further. He had to let him go on his own. He withdrew carefully, noting how cold and still he was. Ice formed on his lips and eyelids and his skin was faintly blue in the torchlight. But that was all right. That was how a level five trance worked. His body was slowed right down to almost a standstill. So was the venom that had entered his body. It wouldn’t cure him of the deadly bite, but it bought him time.

Time for what? There was no help coming to them. There was nowhere anyone could go for help. He was just delaying the inevitable. Riven had to wake up eventually, and when he did, he would die, painfully.

Gynnell turned from him and looked at the two brothers. Nico was lying down, too. Mica knelt at his side.

“There’s nothing I can do for him, either,” he said helplessly. “He’s not dying. But I can’t do anything to help him.”

“I know that,” Mica answered. “You... don’t have to do anything. You’re not.... We all decided together to do this. You’re not our leader. You’re not responsible for any of us. Don’t blame yourself for any of it.”

“It’s my fault we got lost,” Gynnell admitted. “I read the map wrong or... or the compass... I messed it all up. Nico got us here last night. His navigation was good. But when it was up to me, it went wrong.”

“I don’t know why that happened. We should have been all right. I think.... I think you’ve got to stop blaming yourself. You must. Because... look... you’re not the leader... but you’re smarter and stronger than I am... and I need you to stay strong. Or I don’t know if I can.”

Gynnell looked around at his two friends lying on the floor and his other friend kneeling beside his stricken brother. Mica was right. He had to hold it together. There was no point in self-recrimination. There was certainly no point in feeling sorry for himself. That sort of thing was hardly becoming a Time Lord, anyway.

He sat down himself, beside Riven and took several deep breaths.

“We need to decide what to do,” he said.

“Yes, we do,” Mica told him. “But later. We’re all tired. And we couldn’t do anything now, anyway. The sun is up. Let’s rest for a bit. Then we can have some food and water again later, and think about it together.”

“You’re thinking more like a leader than I am,” Gynnell admitted. He pulled a blanket straight and lay beside Riven, holding onto his cold hand. If there was any change to his friend’s condition, he would know. But meanwhile he could rest.

Mica lay beside his brother. He clutched his hand. It was warm. Nico wasn’t in a deep trance. He was just sleeping. Mica sighed softly and let himself do the same.

He woke hours later to hear Nico shouting in his sleep. At least, he hoped he was still asleep, because what he was shouting about was too horrible to contemplate if it was not a dream.

“He can’t be here,” Mica insisted as he tried to calm his brother’s fevered cries. “We’re safe here, Nico. Don’t be scared.”

“He’s got into his dreams?” Gynnell was awake, too. He came to his side. “How? We thought we were protected here. How could he have got to us? If he can get to us here, there’s nowhere we can go.”

“He’s not here,” Mica answered. “It’s not him doing it. Nico’s dreaming about what he used to do to us.”

“Then we never WILL be free of him,” Gynnell realised. “If the memory of him still haunts us even after all we did to put him behind us... then it was for nothing.”

“Nico’s sick,” Mica insisted. “His mind isn’t right. That’s why he’s thinking of those things. He’ll be all right. He just....”

“Yes, he WILL be all right,” Gynnell decided. “They both will. Because I’m going to get help.”

“From where?”

“From the camp. We know the way back from here. I’ll go. I’ll tell them where we are.”

“If you do that, we’ll have failed.”

“We’ve failed anyway. Riven is dying, Nico is sick. We got lost on the second night without the stars to guide us. We’re not as clever as we thought we were. And... look... I’ll tell them it was all me... that I made you three follow me. If anyone gets sent to Shada, it’ll be me. I deserve it, after all. His Lordship only let me off easy in order to be merciful to everyone else. I’ll surrender to him and take the punishment due to me.”

Mica let that pass. He had more immediate concerns.

“You can’t walk all that way on your own.”

“I don’t have any choice. You can’t leave Nico, and you have to watch Riven in case he wakes.”

“What if you get bitten by a snake or...”

“I’ve got to try. I’ll take some of the water and get going straight away. Yes, I know it’s still hot, but the sooner the better. I’ve got to try.”

He put two bottles of water into his backpack and shouldered it manfully. He looked back once at his friends then climbed the ladder quickly. He felt the heat as soon as he emerged from the hole. It was only two thirty in the afternoon. The burning hot air hit him like a physical thing. His eyes were blinded by the glare. As he stood and looked around he couldn’t even make out the horizon from the endless desert. There was such a heat haze rising from the baking sand that everything was distorted.

He wasn’t even certain which way to go. He looked at the compass and was dismayed to see that it was spinning around as if it wasn’t sure where north was, either.

Then he wasn’t sure if the compass was spinning or he was. There was a strange noise in his ears and it was getting louder and louder.

The noise was a shuttle descending. He shielded his eyes from the sun’s glare and made out a symbol on the underside – the Seal of Rassilon. It was the Lord High President’s shuttle. His hearts were both relieved and dismayed at the same time.

Even before the shuttle landed a door opened. Somebody jumped down and ran to him. Gynnell trembled as he started to kneel.

“Don’t be silly,” Kristoph de Lœngbærrow told him. He grasped the boy by his shoulders and held him upright although he was half fainting. “Don’t you know that you only have to kneel when I’m wearing the Sash of Rassilon? What in the name of Chaos are you doing outside in this heat? Trying to kill yourself?”

“Trying to... find... help....” he managed to say.

“Help’s found you. Where are the others? Are they below?”

Gynnell managed to say yes, wondering how the President knew there was a ‘below’ at all. Then he passed out. Kristoph lifted him into the air-conditioned shuttle where one of the Presidential Guards took charge of him, then he turned to the rockface and quickly found the hole with the ladder within.

Mica was astonished to see an adult Time Lord dropping down into the cave. When he realised which Time Lord it was, he almost collapsed in shock.

“You’re already kneeling,” Kristoph said. “No need to prostrate yourself as well. “What happened to your friends?”

Mica told him quickly. Kristoph reached first for Nico. He gently put his hand on the boy’s forehead, soothing the pain he had been suffering and easing the feverish thoughts that haunted him. Then he pressed his fingers against his eyes and pulled them away. Nico gasped as he found his sight returning only to see the Lord High President of all Gallifrey leaning over him solicitously.

“You’ll be fine now, young man,” Kristoph told him. “Just rest a little more while we see to your other friend.”

“Can you help him?” Mica asked. “It was a Red Scorpion Snake bite.”

“Yes, I can help him. But he has to come out of this trance, first.” He laid his hands on Riven. As he did he looked at Mica’s anxious face. “You did the right thing, coming to this place. It’s the one good shelter for hundreds of miles. That’s why I came here. I knew if you had any sense you’d be here.”

“You know this place?”

“You surely know that your Lord High President was once a CIA man? I spent many weeks training in this desert. Of course I know where the shelters are hidden. I suppose you must have found an old map in the camp?”

“Yes, and a compass. But we got lost, still.”

“No wonder. You’re not very far from Dark Territory. Fifty miles at the most. Compasses get more unreliable the closer you get to it. We never used them on our treks. I expect your teachers would have told you that if they expected you to go on such long trips.”

“Sir... we... only did it because....”

“I know. Tau Rho. It’s all right, son. We’re going to do all we can to protect you from him from now on. I’m sorry we failed before this.”

Mica and his brother struggled to find anything to say. They had expected people to be angry with them. They had expected harsh punishments. To hear the man who should have been inflicting those punishments apologising to them was utterly unexpected.

“Is... Riven....” He looked at his friend. He was starting to rise from his deep trance. The frost melted from his lips and eyelids and his skin looked normal for a few minutes, before a rust red bloom appeared all over his body. The poison was being expelled from his body through his pores and evaporating in the warm air. The President must have been helping him to do that. It was a skill students of their age had yet to learn.

“He’ll be all right, now,” the President assured him. “He’s still unconscious, but he’s breathing normally. He’ll be fine after a few days of quiet rest.” Mica watched as the President gently laid his hand on Riven’s forehead and then nodded with satisfaction.

“You boys... the core group... you saw Rho without his mask on more than one occasion?”

“I... think we did,” Mica answered. “But... he did something to our minds. We could never recall his face afterwards.”

“Not when you were conscious,” Kristoph noted. “But Riven’s mind is free of all obfuscation for the first time in months. I can see clearly.”

“You know who Rho is?”

“I do. And you can be assured he won’t hurt any of you again. His reign of terror is all but over. Come on, now. Let’s get you boys back where you belong. Nico, can you climb the ladder with your brother’s help?”

“Yes, sir,” the boy answered. He struggled to his feet. Mica kept close behind him as he started to climb. Kristoph lifted the still unconscious Riven onto his back and carried him. At the top of the ladder, there were Presidential Guards waiting. They had already helped the two brothers into the shuttle. They lifted Riven, now, and placed him on a stretcher. Kristoph climbed into the shuttle last of all and the doors were closed. It took off vertically. The boys were given cold, soothing drinks. They looked relieved to be in the cool, temperature controlled cabin, safe from the hostile desert. But there were anxious questions in all their minds.

“We’re going to the camp,” Kristoph told them. “You all need a few days rest in the sick bay. You’ll be safe there. I’ve ordered extra guards and psychic shields around the perimeter.”

The boys said nothing, but he knew what they were thinking even without telepathy.

“The extra security is not to punish you. It’s to protect you. The camp was always meant to be a place of safety for you boys, as well as a place of confinement. You have my word that it will be from now on. I’m going to arrange for your parents to visit while you’re recovering from your ordeal. They’re worried about you. Gynnell, your brother is already there, waiting for our return. No, he isn’t angry. He’s pretending he is, because that’s the sort of man he is. But I don’t think you have anything to worry about.”

Gynnell nodded. It was all he could manage. He had been ready to face much worse than his brother’s wrath. It was slowly sinking into his exhausted mind that it was going to be all right, after all.