Part One — Sightseeing and Interfering
Everywhere Rose looked, there was smoke and debris. The burnt-out remains of the settlement looked exactly like the devastated ruins she had seen in war photos from her own time, but no photograph could have prepared her to stand in the midst of such destruction.
There were people–strange, part-marsupial and part-avian aliens, but still people–running frantically about in every direction, seemingly at random. Most of the adults had at least one injury, and many had burnt, scarred, or entirely missing wings. Several of them carried pouchlings, some barely hatched, some with injuries as devastating as those of the adults.
Standing motionless for a moment amidst the chaos swirling around her, Rose wondered where Jack and the Doctor had wound up and if they were all right.
Just over one hour earlier…
“I swear, Rose, it’s the most amazing culture I’ve ever seen!” Jack proclaimed, one hand waving expressively even as the other deftly placed a tool in the Doctor’s outstretched hand.
Tool received, the Doctor’s hand disappeared beneath the grating once more.
“What’s so special about it, though? Honesty is supposed to be pretty important in my culture, too,” Rose replied. She was sitting beside him, watching as he and the Doctor passed tools back and forth. They’d been discussing famous alien species as they waited for the Doctor to finish calibrating the TARDIS’s time-sensitive something-or-other.
“It’s not that honesty is important to them,” the Doctor replied, making his first contribution to the discussion since he’d disappeared below the console room’s floor. His head popped back into view then, and he looked up at Rose. “It’s that they based their entire culture on a philosophy about the subjective nature of truth and the importance of understanding different points of view. That philosophy is what led them to become known throughout the galaxy as negotiators and peace-makers. Think of it: thousands of years of galactic peace because of the efforts of one species.”
“Okay, that’s impressive,” Rose agreed, smiling down at the Doctor because he was smiling up at her. It was his big, adorable smile, too. The one he got when he was excited about showing her something new.
It was nice to see that smile. It had been a rare sight since she’d crossed the universes to find him… since the fiasco with Davros, when they’d lost Donna and the Doctor’s half-human twin.
“We should take Rose to see a Storytelling,” Jack suggested.
The Doctor turned to look at him as he replied, still grinning, “The best ones are on Nidus, itself. Ever been?”
This, apparently, was something special. Jack did a happy little bounce and hopped up to his feet.
“No, but I’d love to!” he replied eagerly, reaching a hand down to grasp the Doctor’s and help pull the Time Lord up onto the grating.
Rose helped Jack lower the section of grating back into place while the Doctor tossed the tool he’d been using back into an open bin on the floor.
“So Nidus is where these… what are they called?” she asked, curious and eager to learn more.
“Grex,” the Doctor reminded her. He’d already moved to the console and was starting his customary dance around the controls as he set coordinates.
“Grex, right. So Nidus is where the Grex live?” she finished her question, carefully repeating the alien words.
“It’s their home world,” Jack replied. “And where the tradition of putting on Storytellings began.”
Jack seemed to get distracted then, and when she turned to follow his gaze she saw the Doctor sprawled across the console. It was indeed a somewhat distracting sight. The trousers on that brown suit were… form-fitting. And the form in question was… well, distracting.
Rose bumped her shoulder into Jack’s playfully, grasping a nearby railing for balance, and shared a knowing grin with him. A moment later she was grateful for the handhold as the TARDIS began to rattle and bump her way through the Vortex.
“And we’re off!” the Doctor cried gleefully. His trainers hit the grating again and he rounded the console, still smiling.
Rose felt her own wide smile growing once more in response. They were going on an adventure! Finally, after two weeks of puttering around on Earth and in the Vortex, they were really traveling again.
“So what’s a Storytelling?” she asked, continuing her quest for knowledge. “Is it like a play?”
“Sort of,” Jack replied, his hands now beside hers on the railing. “There’s a narrator and there are players, like in a play. But the ‘story’ is about helping the audience, who sometimes participate, to understand the different points of view involved. They’re partly entertainment, partly education, and partly negotiation.”
The Doctor joined them at the railing on his next pass around the console.
“They use emotion and logic to help bring to light the different truths in a story. It’s all about communication, understanding, and acceptance,” he explained.
The TARDIS bumped violently, and suddenly there were three sets of hands on the railing.
“Hey, who’s driving this bus?” Jack complained.
The Doctor looked sheepish, let go of the railing, and returned to the console.
Rose couldn’t help but smile again at his antics. This was the Doctor she remembered, as opposed to the quieter Doctor she and Jack had been living with since Davros.
But as she thought of Davros once again, her smile faded slightly. She couldn’t keep her thoughts from running over what had happened, glad that Jack and the Doctor seemed fully ensnared by their own excitement and thus unaware of her shifting mood.
The Doctor tap-danced around the console again, hitting buttons and flipping levers with unrestrained joy just as he always had those few short years ago.
She really couldn’t blame him for having changed since she’d last seen him. They’d both changed, both been through so much since then. He’d had his darker moments back then, too, of course. But as far as she could tell it had almost become the norm for him now. It wasn’t that he brooded or sulked the way her first Doctor had. It was more that he seemed to have lost some of his endless energy and love for living life to the fullest.
She wasn’t sure if this was something that had been going on for a while, or if his conversation with Davros had precipitated it. Maybe Davros had just exacerbated it.
She and Jack had been hard pressed to convince him to even take them with him that day two weeks ago. The others who’d fought Davros had all left for their homes and families. Sarah Jane had her son. Mickey and Martha were, last she’d heard, helping out at Torchwood while Jack was away. They’d had just enough time to drop her mum back in the other universe to be with their family there… and that’s when it had all begun to go wrong.
The Doctor had meant to leave Rose there too, along with his half-human twin. He and Donna had been in the midst of trying to convince her and Jack that it was for the best when Donna had first shown signs of being ill. And while the Doctor was distracted with her, his twin had also collapsed.
The metacrisis had been unstable in both directions, and neither one of them could survive as they were. To Rose’s horror, the only solution had been to wipe the Time Lord from both their minds. Essentially it would erase their personalities, in Donna’s case returning her to the woman she’d been before meeting the Doctor. Despite Donna’s heartbreaking protests, that was exactly what the Doctor had done. Rose had seen how devastated it left him, and understood that he hadn’t really had a choice.
But the human Doctor, supported between Rose and Jack as he looked on with his horror written plainly across his face, had calmly and steadfastly refused the treatment. In his case, the memory wipe would have left him a blank slate. Claiming that he would rather die, he had fought off the Doctor’s mental touch with all of his remaining energy.
In the end, unwilling to actually kill him and unable to do much else, the Doctor had instead literally dragged him into the TARDIS and into a stasis pod in the infirmary. He was still there, and it seemed likely to Rose that he would be there indefinitely. She knew there was nothing she could do for him and doubted that there was really anything the Doctor could do, either. If there had been, he would certainly at least have done it for Donna right there on the beach.
Rose had said yet another potentially permanent goodbye to her mother on that beach in Norway, a fact which she wasn’t sure had really sunk in yet, and then they’d left to return Donna to her family. They’d cut it close, nearly getting stuck in the alternate universe as the walls closed yet again.
And then she and Jack had spent one nerve-wracking afternoon convincing the Doctor that they were not about to let him go off on his own. It hadn’t been an easy battle, but eventually they’d won just by out-stubborning the Time Lord. Clearly emotionally exhausted from the events of the previous day, he’d eventually just told them to do as they pleased and disappeared into the depths of the TARDIS interior. They’d been living together in relative harmony for the two weeks since, finding an easy balance between the close bond they’d once had and the ways in which they’d each changed.
Rose’s attention snapped back to the present as the TARDIS landed with her usual graceful clatter. She saw the worried look that Jack was giving her, but decided to brush it off in the hopes of retaining the air of excitement about their trip.
“Are we there?” Rose asked the Doctor.
He was still standing at the console, but was frowning down at the monitor.
Rose’s heart skipped a beat. Had he noticed her withdrawing from them? Did she ruin his rare cheerful mood with her brooding?
No, he was still fiddling with the controls and he looked more consternated than anything else.
“What is it?” she asked, following Jack away from the railing and over to the Doctor’s side.
“Strange,” he muttered. “We’re there, but we aren’t then.”
“Right place, wrong time?” Jack surmised.
The Doctor nodded.
“So when are we?” Rose asked, wishing for the thousandth time that she could make heads or tails of the alien readouts on the console monitor. It was something she had promised herself she would start learning before she’d first been separated from the Doctor. It was time to start making good on that promise.
“A few tens of thousands of years too early for a classic Storytelling,” the Doctor replied, one finger tapping on a gauge. “I’d say we could try again, but I’ve found that when the TARDIS does this she usually has a reason.”
This pronouncement worried Rose a little, but only a little. While the Doctor had never before admitted to the TARDIS’s willful navigation changes, Rose had long since noticed the pattern. Almost every time they wound up in an unexpected time or place it was because something was going wrong that they could help to fix.
“Are you sure the calibrations aren’t just off?” Jack wondered.
The TARDIS made a grinding noise and flickered her lights as if in protest.
“Positive,” the Doctor chuckled. “Just fixed them, remember?”
“Yeah,” Jack agreed, petting the console. “Sorry, Beautiful. I shouldn’t have doubted you.”
“You talking to the TARDIS, or the Doctor?” Rose asked him, amused.
Jack just grinned and continued petting the console.
The Doctor ignored them both with infinite patience.
“We’d best go see why she brought us here,” he told them, heading towards the strut where they usually tossed their coats. “If she’s sensed something wrong in this time, we need to find out what it is.”
Rose and Jack followed him. As they reached the coats, Jack stopped to grab his.
“Nidus is a pretty cold world,” he told Rose. “Coats are probably a good idea.”
Nodding thanks for the warning, Rose reached for her own coat. It was a green waist-length jacket that she’d found in the wardrobe room two weeks ago. She’d gone there looking for something to wear after finding herself stuck in a universe where she had no clothes of her own, and been captivated by the sheer number of useful pockets to be found in the warm garment.
All three of them coated and ready, they congregated at the door.
“Ready?” the Doctor asked, an adventuresome gleam in his eyes.
“Lead on!” Jack replied happily.
“What he said,” Rose added, grinning. They were about to see a new planet, their first back together as a team!
The Doctor pushed open the door, and they stepped out onto a new world. It felt just as exhilarating as it always had, and Rose found herself bouncing lightly as if testing the consistency of the ground beneath her feet.
Her first impression was of brown. The dirt, the grass, the leaves on the trees she could see in the near distance, and even the sky itself were all varying shades of brown. At first look it seemed that everything was dead, since brown foliage had that connotation in her mind. But as she took a closer look, she could tell that the grass and the leaves were flourishing… and they just happened to be brown.
Jack had been right about it being cold. A brisk wind whipped playfully past them, blowing through their hair and making Jack and the Doctor’s coattails flap around their legs. It brought with it a strange scent, a combination of sulfur and stale air, which Rose attributed to the alien nature of the atmosphere. It wasn’t the most pleasant of aromas, but it wasn’t so strong that she couldn’t get used to it.
Rose threaded one arm each through one of the Doctor’s and one of Jack’s, sandwiching herself comfortably between them.
“Well, where to, then?” she asked. “It doesn’t look like there’s much around here.”
“Maybe the Grex are in the forest?” Jack mused. “They are avian.”
“And marsupial,” the Doctor added. “Either one wouldn’t been out of place in a forest. But in this time period they are mostly bipedal and should be in a few small settlements, just getting the hang of agriculture.”
“No signs of that here, though,” Rose pointed out.
The Doctor shrugged, and started to say, “I suppose…”
Just then, a voice called out curiously from behind the TARDIS.
“Who are you? And what are you doing out here?”
Bemused, the Doctor noticeably changed what he was about to say and instead continued, “… we really ought to learn to look behind the TARDIS, too.”
Sharing sheepish grins, the trio had to laugh at their own folly. Rose let go of their arms so the three of them could turn and step around the TARDIS.
The sight on the other side of the time ship was breathtaking, and breathtakingly different.
A large mountain loomed on the other side of the valley in the middle of which they had apparently parked. What looked to be a large settlement sat nestled at its base. The mountain, too, was brown, and its flat peak was emitting an ominous column of brown smoke.
“Is that a…?” Rose breathed.
“It is,” the Doctor confirmed, an odd grim note in his voice. “It’s a volcano.”
Rose looked at him sharply. She was fascinated by the idea of seeing a volcano, if a little nervous. Why did he sound like it was something horrible? People lived happily near active volcanoes on Earth all the time. She could only assume that the Doctor knew something she didn’t.
“I said, who are you?” the voice repeated itself, this time sharply.
Rose’s attention snapped to the speaker, only to find that Jack had made his predictable advances while she was busy staring in awe at the mountain.
“Friendly travelers, that’s all,” Jack replied, holding a hand out in greeting, seemingly unaware of the fact that he was talking to a man who had a pair of wings.
Rose tried not to stare impolitely, but found it difficult. The man, like his native surroundings, was largely colored in varying shades of brown. He looked essentially humanoid, bipedal as the Doctor had suggested, and having the usual assortment of limbs and facial features. But folded up against his shoulders and back were what was obviously a good-sized pair of wings.
It was impossible for Rose to tell if he was normally capable of flight, but it was easy enough to see that he currently was not. Both of his wings were wrapped in large bandages.
Unimpressed by Jack’s overtures, the man crossed his arms across his chest. He was shirtless, sporting instead a light coat of brown fur that went up to his neckline, though he wore what looked like a warm pair of trousers and boots. They, too, of course, were brown.
Rose was beginning to see a pattern.
“I can tell that you’re travelers, though there hasn’t been anyone from outside the village in years. And I don’t understand how you made that blue box of yours appear like that,” he said, sounding ever so slightly nervous. “But it doesn’t matter right now. Castus said to gather everyone back in the village and I suppose that includes you three… whoever you are.”
“Splendid! We’d love to see the village,” the Doctor replied genially. “My name’s the Doctor. This is Rose, and that’s Jack.”
“I’m Ales. Pleased to meet you,” the man replied. “Now, please, back into the village.”
“Lead on, Ales!” the Doctor said cheerfully.
With one last suspicious glance at the TARDIS, Ales turned and strode off across the valley towards the settlement at the base of the mountain. He walked at a brisk pace, clearly hurrying home now that his duty as a messenger had been carried out.
The Doctor let him pull ahead before starting to follow, allowing the TARDIS crew some privacy.
“Something very wrong is going on here,” he said quietly when they were out of earshot.
“Yeah, I noticed,” Jack replied. “What’s with all the brown?”
“That’s not natural, then?” Rose had to ask. Sometimes it frustrated her that she had so much less general knowledge about the universe than Jack. But now that they were traveling together again, she could comfort herself with the thought that he and the Doctor would both be doing their best to help her catch up. She planned to be an avid student and enjoy every moment of her education.
“No, the color scheme should be more like Earth except with a little more blue and a little less green. And the Grex are supposed to have red feathers,” Jack explained. “What do you think is going on, Doc?”
“It’s the mountain,” the Doctor replied darkly. “I can’t be sure, of course, until I get closer and run some scans. But I can smell from here that the volcano is putting out at least one type of poisonous gas.”
“How poisonous?” Rose asked, worried both about the people who apparently lived so close to the volcano and about themselves. Even if Jack was immortal, something else she was still having trouble wrapping her brain around, poisonous gas did not sound like something to trifle with.
“Probably enough that I wouldn’t recommend living here,” Jack said. “If that’s what’s turned everything here brown, even the Grex, it’s got to be potent stuff.”
“I’ll know more when I can run some scans,” the Doctor repeated. “But Ales said that there hasn’t been anyone outside the settlement in years. If all the Grex are here, and have been for years, then they’ve all been exposed to the poison.”
“Why are they still here if it’s poison? Wouldn’t they be sick?” Rose asked.
The Doctor shook his head. “Not necessarily. It depends on how concentrated the gas is, and how active the volcano has been. Judging by its looks, it’s certainly active now.”
Rose saw him give the mountain another dark look, and again wondered what he wasn’t telling them.
“If this is the main population and we’re talking about poison… are the Grex in danger of extinction at this point in time? Is that why the TARDIS brought us here?” Jack asked.
The Doctor shrugged, but didn’t reply.
“Well, the least we can do is meet them and run your scans, Doctor,” Rose pointed out. “Maybe there’s another explanation.”
“Maybe,” the Doctor allowed, though he didn’t sound like he really believed it.
They had almost reached the sprawling settlement. It looked less like a village and more like a refugee camp the size of a small city. Rose estimated that around a few thousand Grex were living there. Those that she could see seemed to be dressed similarly to Ales, right down to the bandages on many of their wings.
She also saw many who were entirely missing one or both wings, left only with carefully bandaged stumps on their shoulders. It at least explained why Ales didn’t seem concerned that three wingless people had suddenly appeared. Wingless people apparently weren’t that unheard of.
Several of the Grex Rose could see had also suffered burns and other injuries. There was hardly one that looked whole and unscathed. Her heart ached for the sheer amount of suffering these people had so obviously endured.
The village itself looked as injured as its inhabitants. It didn’t look haphazardly constructed, but rather like it had once been a much more impressive city that had since severely declined, or perhaps been thoroughly bombed. Based on the damage evident to many of the remaining buildings and tents, Rose guessed that the volcano was more active than it looked. Every part of the settlement she could see carried obvious signs of terrific destruction. The mountain had probably spewed rock and ash over the village repeatedly for the last several years.
What she couldn’t understand was why the Grex were still living here, and had apparently all congregated here! Especially if the mountain was also spewing poisonous gas as the Doctor suspected.
Ales was waiting for them at the edge of the village when they finally caught up to him again. He looked less nervous now that he was back on his home territory and away from any and all mysterious blue boxes.
“Castus wants everyone to meet in the village square. He’s going to speak to us at noon,” Ales explained.
“Will you show us the way?” the Doctor asked. “Noon is only a few minutes away and we don’t want to get lost and be late.”
Ales looked uncomfortable again, as if he’d really hoped to end his association with these three newcomers as soon as possible.
“I suppose you can follow me,” he replied reluctantly. “I’m heading there myself, anyway.”
“Good man,” the Doctor said cheerfully. “Now, who is this Castus fellow?”
Ales started walking further into the settlement, as if he wasn’t planning on answering the Doctor’s question. But the Doctor easily kept pace with him, clearly unwilling to leave him alone until he’d had his answer.
Rose and Jack brought up the rear, close enough to hear the conversation if not participate, as throngs of Grex closed in around them. The entire populace seemed to be heading in the same direction, towards the middle of the village. Rose felt Jack’s hand bump against hers, and she slipped her hand into his in reply. They hurried to keep up with Ales and the Doctor.
“Castus is the Sacerdos, the High Priest. He is the leader of the Grex who have made the holy pilgrimage and now live here,” Ales explained hastily as he walked.
“Brilliant! Some nice old-time religion, just what we three weary travelers need,” the Doctor replied, still in that excessively cheerful voice that only he could so convincingly manage. “Do you know what he wants to talk to everyone about?”
“I am his First Acolyte,” Ales admitted. “But he did not tell me why he has called a meeting today. Perhaps it is because the Mountain has been so quiet this morning.”
“That’s different, is it? The mountain being quiet?” the Doctor asked.
Rose could see Ales turn his head towards the Doctor to give the Time Lord an incredulous look.
“You must be from far away, indeed. But even you must know about the Mountain,” Ales said. “Else how would you have known to come here?”
“We’re sort of… hermits,” the Doctor replied, sounding a bit sheepish. Rose watched his hand fly up to rub the back of his neck, an adorable mannerism she remembered fondly from other times he’d been caught out in a lie. Some things never changed.
Jack gave a snort at the Doctor’s hermit explanation, and had an indulgently amused look on his face when Rose turned to glance at him. He shook his head, and she got the message that he’d tell her what was so funny later.
“We don’t get out much,” the Doctor was continuing. “Except for conventions, you see. Hermits United.”
This time Rose saw him turn to glance back at Jack, and she watched the two of them share lopsided grins. Some private joke from some adventure they’d had while she was in the other universe, she assumed. She didn’t begrudge them that. Rather, she was glad to know that they had shared some pleasant memories.
“Whatever,” Ales replied brusquely. “I’m sure you’ll learn everything you need to know quickly. We’re at the square. I have to go, now.”
He disappeared off into the crowd before any of them could say anything else.
“He’s a friendly sort,” Rose observed sarcastically. She reached her free hand out to grab one of the Doctor’s before they wound up separated in the crowd.
Their fingers intertwined, fitting together naturally. Standing there in an alien crowd on a troubled alien world holding hands with the Doctor and Jack, Rose suddenly thought that perhaps she’d finally found a little slice of heaven. She wiggled her fingers in between the Doctor’s and grinned up at him.
He grinned back, squeezing her hand in reply. But his mind was clearly still on the Grex’s plight and her comment about their new friend, Ales, since what he said was, “I don’t know, I rather like him.”
“Well, he admitted to being the head honcho’s number one man,” Jack pointed out. “He’s got responsibilities. More important things to think about. No wonder he was a bit leery of riffraff like us.”
“Riffraff?” the Doctor repeated the word, looking across Rose to give Jack an affronted glare. “Riffraff?”
“Well, look at them, and look at us,” Jack pointed out. “We don’t exactly fit in.”
“Well, we don’t,” Rose told him. “But the Doctor does.”
She nodded at the Time Lord.
“He’s all sort of… brown. Like them.”
“You’re right,” Jack agreed. “It is a good look for him, though I wonder what he’d look like with wings?”
“If we’re done discussing my fashion sense, it looks like someone is about to start talking,” the Doctor replied, still sounding the affronted high-and-mighty Time Lord despite a small smile. He gestured to a raised platform in the center of the square.
Atop the platform stood an older man, a Grex who still had both wings but whose fur seemed to be greying. One of his arms was in a sling. Even he had not escaped injury during whatever events had befallen the village.
“I am Castus, the Sacerdos of the Grex! I speak to the devout gathered here, the pouchlings of Nidus herself, with the authority of the ancestors!” cried the man on the platform.
“We hear and we believe,” echoed the crowd around them.
Rose frowned. That did not sound very much like the ritual response of a society based on the subjective nature of truth. She wasn’t surprised to see the Doctor frowning as well when she glanced at him to see his reaction.
“I bring news of the guardian spirits of Mons Vitae!” Castus proclaimed.
The Doctor snorted, causing Rose to glance over at him again.
“Mons Vitae means ‘Mountain of Life’… just a bit ironic,” the Doctor whispered.
“I’ll say,” Jack agreed on her other side.
“Grex have lived here at the base of the Great Mountain of Life for many generations!” Castus continued. “Our ancestors gained great favor in the eyes of the spirits, and their village grew mighty. But in recent years the Mountain has grown angry, the spirits dissatisfied. We, the faithful, have congregated here to show our reverence to the spirits as our ancestors taught us!”
“So that’s why they all stay here!” Jack breathed. “Religion!”
“Some nice old-time religion,” the Doctor said, repeating his previous words with a somewhat darker tone.
“But the spirits of the Mountain have continued to show us their anger!” Castus proclaimed. “We have not been pure enough! We have not brought ourselves close enough to the spirits! I have meditated long on our failures, and when I awoke from my meditations this dawn the spirits had at long last spoken to me!”
The crowd gasped at this, and seemed to surge closer to the platform where Castus stood. Rose felt herself pulled along as Jack and the Doctor were jostled by Grex on either side.
“I resolved in that moment to speak to you all this noon, to tell you all what the spirits had revealed to me and to act upon their commands. And behold! The spirits of Mons Vitae have been silent today! Our obedience appeases them!” Castus cried, his hands stretched out as if in supplication to the smoldering mountain.
“We hear and we obey!” the crowd replied in a ragged shout of religious fervor.
“I have been blessed with the knowledge that will bring our salvation!” Castus continued, his voice rising. “We must leave this village, this place tainted with our failures!”
“Well, that’s a good idea, at least,” Rose commented.
“Maybe,” the Doctor replied, a cautious note in his voice. “Maybe not. He still thinks the mountain is a font of life.”
“We must all leave this place, and make new lives closer to the spirits! We must build a new village closer to Mons Vitae!” Castus finally revealed his plan for salvation, in the same breath confirming what Rose now understood were the Doctor’s worst fears.
The crowd seemed pleased with this pronouncement. Rose supposed it was at least something proactive that they could do to try to control their fate, even if she knew that it was ultimately misguided.
“He’s got it all wrong!” the Doctor whispered angrily. Then, louder, he repeated, “He’s got it all wrong, and they’re listening to him!”
Rose felt the Doctor’s fingers slip away from hers, and before she could reach out for him he was shouldering his way forward through the crowd.
“Doctor!” Jack hissed, ineffectively, before attempting to follow. He kept his grip on Rose’s hand and she found herself dragged along behind him.
The Doctor made much quicker progress than they did, and managed to reach the platform long before they had made it very far into the crowd. Rose had lost sight of his brown shape in the multitude of other brown shapes arrayed around them, but saw him again just as he made an athletic leap up onto the platform beside Castus. His coat, somehow, swirled around him dashingly rather than tangling up in his legs and tripping him.
Jack gave up trying to push ahead and so they stood there, as breathless as the surprised Grex standing around them, waiting to see what would happen.
“Who are you!?” Castus demanded.
“I’m the Doctor! Hello!” the Doctor replied, waving at the crowd.
“What are you doing?” was Castus’s predictable next question.
The Doctor opened his mouth to reply, but stopped short. Rose tried to see what had caught his attention, and caught a glimpse of Ales and another Grex climbing onto the platform on Castus’s other side. The other was wearing what looked almost like a dress. A woman?
The Doctor seemed to wave a greeting at Ales and his mysterious companion, and then turned back to Castus.
“I’m a hermit. Just ask your acolyte there, he met me out in the valley and led me back here. I’m a… a holy hermit. A prophet! And I’m here to tell you that you have all been deceived by evil spirits!” the Doctor cried, addressing the crowd as well as Castus.
“How dare you speak such sacrilege!” Castus cried in outrage. “You are a stranger with no wings, you are no holy man!”
“Oi! That’s rude,” the Doctor pointed out. “My wings aren’t important. My message is! Mons Vitae has been inhabited by evil spirits who only wish harm upon the Grex. They have tried to trick you into staying here and even moving closer to their poisons!”
“Poisons? Evil spirits? What are you talking about, you fool? You’ll anger the spirits of the Mountain!” Castus protested.
The crowd gasped and shifted again, but this time it was an uglier sound. Rose began to keep a wary eye on those standing near her and took the tiniest step closer to Jack for comfort and safety. She felt Jack squeeze her hand in reply.
“The spirits are already angry, you said so yourself!” the Doctor reminded him. “You must move away from here! Start new lives in a safer place!”
“You fool!” Castus shouted. “We tried to leave! When the Mountain first began to smoke and shake the ground many years ago, many Grex tried to leave! But they, every one of them, grew ill after they ventured too far from the Mountain. Those who refused to return each died from that illness!”
“Oh, no,” Jack whispered.
Rose took her eyes off the action on the platform to spare him a questioning glance.
“It’s the poison. They’ve become addicted to it!” Jack explained.
Suddenly, Rose understood. The Grex who had lived here for so long, which by this point was most of them, had become addicted to the lower levels of the poison that the Mountain had always emitted. But now that it was more active…
“They became ill because they were trying to escape the evil spirits!” the Doctor tried to explain. “There are poisons in the air and water that comes from the mountain. You are all immune to small amounts of it, but it will make you all very ill soon now that the mountain is putting out more of it! Not to mention the danger from the eruptions themselves!”
“You are lying,” Castus asserted. “They became ill when they left the mountain. If you were telling the truth, they would have been fine!”
“It’s because your systems are used to lower levels of the poisons now! You’ll need help to safely leave the area, but I can give you that help. I… I know how to break the hold that the evil spirits have on the Grex! But I can only help you if you’re willing to leave the mountain,” the Doctor pleaded with Castus. “They listen to you, they’ll follow you. Help me save your people!”
“No,” Castus replied. “No, I think it is you who is under the control of evil spirits. The guardian spirits of Mons Vitae have been quiet since I vowed to lead the Grex closer to the Mountain. Your sacrilegious talk will anger them again!
As if choosing that moment specifically to make life difficult for the TARDIS crew, the mountain began to rumble ominously in the distance.
Everyone, from the Doctor and Castus up on the platform to every single member of the crowd standing down in the square, turned to look at the mountain. It was billowing more of the dense, brown smoke.
There was another rumble, and that seemed to break the shocked calm that had gripped everyone.
Chaos broke out. The crowd seemed to surge in multiple directions at once, the very air laced with panic.
Rose could still hear Castus berating the Doctor even though she could no longer see the platform.
“Look what you have done! Look what you have brought upon us! This is your doing!”
She didn’t hear the Doctor’s reply, if he had even given one. There were too many screams and shouts of fear assaulting her ears for her to hear anything else clearly.
She felt Jack trying to pull her closer to the platform again, but they lost their grip on each other as the crowd churned around them. She lost sight of him quickly, but was too busy trying to stay on her feet and make her way towards the Doctor to look for him. She knew he’d be doing the same.
As the panicked crowd began to disperse outwards in all directions, flowing out of the square and back into the rest of the village, the ferocity of the mountain’s rumbles increased.
The ground shook violently beneath her, and Rose barely kept her footing. Hearing an earth-shattering boom and more panicked screams, she stopped trying to run against the current of the crowd and turned to look at the volcano.
It was spewing flaming rocks, many of which seemed to be falling straight towards the village.