"So… you're not mad at me for what happened before?" I carefully asked.
We had hiked through the mountains for the better of three or maybe four hours and the way had been steep and also contained a few passages we had to lightly climb over. Nothing so bad we would have needed ropes, but still difficult enough to stay silent and concentrated. Now we were on a smoother path through a patch of forest, the sun already about to set.
The Master was staring into the air, seemingly lost in his own thoughts. It took him a few moments to look down and towards me, and another few moments until he seemed to even remember what I was referring to.
"I'm evil, not dumb," he grumbled. "There's a difference, although you might not be aware of it."
"Yeah, yeah, I'm a stupid ape, I get it," I drawled, sighing.
Some metres ahead the Doctor was chatting with one of the women, excitedly gesturing with his arms and showing no signs of exhaustion. He helped them navigate with his Sonic Screwdriver that had picked up a promising trace a few hours ago. Donna was a few steps behind, keeping up surprisingly good, considering that she didn't seem to type for long hikes. The other two men were also having a quiet conversation, Bor holding the map and pointing at it sometimes.
"I heard them again," I muttered, not daring to look at the Master.
At first there was no reply and I already thought he would dismiss it, as always. "I know," he eventually replied, almost speaking as quietly as I had. "It reverberated loud enough. Must have been… unpleasant."
Now I did look, surprised and also relieved. "So, they aren't that loud all the time."
"Ha! Noooo! I'd properly go insane." He laughed and then sent a grin my way. "Loud enough, still. Sometimes it gets close." He shook his head and then lightly bumped his fist against my shoulder. "But this time I can be certain you heard them. That's good news. It means you might actually have a chance."
I smiled at my feet. At least there was something I could do. And he didn't hate me, not more than usual, anyway.
"We're almost there," called Darwil and we all gathered around him. He pointed at the map, then at a steep mountain ridge in front of us. "Just over there, if that device of yours is right. The location matches with a valley, although… Well, we'll have to see. We predicted the city to be in a slightly different direction."
"Over there?" asked Donna, glaring at the ascent. "Who'd hide a city behind that? It's insane to even consider climbing up there."
"Och, it's not that bad," said the Doctor. "We have ropes and hooks and everything. You'll be alright."
"Alright? Listen up, spaceman, I've never climbed anything! Up to Gramps' hill, yeah, but not…" She gestured to the ridge.
"You'll manage." The Doctor nudged her playfully and grinned. "I'll help and the others will have an eye on you too."
"Yeah, doesn't look that bad," I agreed. "Do we even need hooks? There's enough juts and nooks. I've climbed worse without gear."
The Doctor looked at me, surprised, as did the Master.
"What?" I laughed. "I've been hiking quite a lot in the past. Nothing too bad, but a few of the trails were a lot worse than what we did today."
"So, you're going first and tell us if the way is safe?" teased the Master.
I grimaced, but shrugged. "Sure."
"Not so fast," laughed Meyla. "I'm the best climber of us. I'll lead."
"Yeah," agreed Bor, "she always gets us everywhere, don't you?" He winked at her and she turned her head away, blushing slightly.
So, Meyla ended up leading our group up the ridge, although it really wasn't that bad. It made me remember a few hikes with a former friend, where we had ended up climbing quite a lot without having expected it. And with me being completely unprepared and clumsy and having no proper shoes. Somehow I had still managed and had been as proud of myself as seldom before. It was nice, being focused on what to do with your limbs, moving forwards slowly and deliberately. Something like that frees your head in a way nothing else is able to.
For a while I lost myself in the climb. The dim light didn't help much, but I had a good perception of where I could stand and where I could grab the stones. The ridge was maybe twenty or thirty metres high and it took quite a bit of focus to keep safe. Meyla threw down some secured ropes as soon as she reached the top. We joined her, one by one, Donna being the last and obviously exhausted by the procedure and also shaking slightly.
"Have never been great with heights," she admitted quietly to me. "Couldn't even stand on my uncle's balkony for long and that was only the third floor. 'N now look at me…"
I grinned at her and she returned the expression. She must have felt as proud as I had back then.
There was another, smaller segment to climb, just steep enough to walk bent, but not so much that we had to actually climb again. The sun had set completely now, leaving us with only a diffuse light on the horizon as we looked down an enormous valley. At first I couldn't make out much, because everything was hidden behind a thin fog and the sparse light. But as my eyes got used to the dark, I could clearly make out shapes that were too straight to be natural.
"There it is," breathed Darwil, awe in his voice. "The lost city of Jir."
The Master stepped next to him, squinting into the distance. "Definitely an artificial structure. Damn, that's a huge place. You didn't lie when you called it a city."
"You can make it out?" asked Ulkta.
"Enough of it to tell that we found what we came here for," answered the Doctor, instead. "But maybe we should make camp here for the night. Don't wanna go down there while it's all dark."
"Why?" mocked the Master. "Afraid of the ghosts?"
"Naaah. Just not eager to fall flat on my face cause I don't see anything."
"Wouldn't mind," drawled the Master. "I'd watch and laugh at you."
"Then I'd give you a kick in the butt and make you fall right along," came a jibe from Donna. "That would certainly make me laugh."
"We'll stay for the night," decided Darwil, voice louder than it needed to be to distract the bickering group. "It's better if everyone is rested when we get down. Who knows what will lurk there, after all." He glanced down at the vague structure in the distance, his words sending a chill down my spine.
If only I could see what lay there, but the darkness and the fog swallowed almost everything. Even after my eyes adjusted, there simply wasn't enough light to identify much. In front of us could lie nothing but a collection of strangely shaped hills. But the Time Lords had made out more and by now I trusted their heightened perception enough to assume that there really was a city.
We set up our sleeping bags and Darwil made a fire. It was small, but would still be obvious from the distance, however, definitely preferable to the darkness that had settled around us. We ate some rations that tasted like some indefinable whatever and Donna told about a school trip from her childhood, where they had similar rations and everyone had hated them.
The others also started to tell a few snippets and I learned that their civilization truly was built on top of ruins, their technology consisting only of what they found in rubble piles and with no one around, who understood enough anymore to rebuild them. What the devices they found were for was found out by testing and experimenting. The Doctor showed them a few extras on one of their navigation devices and especially the women were eager to soak up every piece of knowledge they could gather.
I mainly listened, not in the mood to do much else. The hike had tired me quite a bit since I wasn't used to it anymore. And the Master had wandered off, using his laser screwdriver as a light.
Eventually, I crawled into my sleeping bag and glared up at the stars for another while, drifting into sleep with the cosy noises of fire and chatting around me.
What I didn't expect was to dream.
Vague shadows were sneaking over the mountains, slowly creeping up on us to watch the group sleeping, their form constantly shifting and shaping themselves anew. They stood there, watching, waiting, glaring into the sparse light of the dimming flame and dying slowly with its light.
What remained was darkness and darkness alone.
I shot up, heart thudding wildly in my chest. It was almost impossible to make out anything in the night, but a ray of morning light already peeked over the mountain tops, calming my nerves for only seconds. The sound of rumbling pebbles made me jump.
But it was only the Master, casually climbing up to us from who knows where. He probably hadn't slept much, if at all. The Doctor was also sitting around, reading on a device that looked like an ordinary e-reader to me.
My eyes wandered over the scenery that was slowly fading to vision in the emerging sunlight. A light fog was still obscuring most of the view, but it wasn't nearly as thick as yesterday. And my eyes widened in wonderment at what was revealed in the far distance.
The valley was no valley, but a deep crater, dug into the mountains by some ancient meteor. The impact had toppled smaller peaks and crashed through stone and wood, burning its surroundings with a heat that I couldn't even imagine. The remaining mountains were charred black and half molten, pooling at the ground to weird formations.
And as if that wasn't enough of a sight, the ancient people had used this crater to place an enormous city inside of it. Buildings high as skyscrapers filled the pit, thousands of them in different shapes and sizes, often connected by thin bridges high up in the air. Many buildings had fallen victim to time, had crumbled or fallen over, crashing everything beneath them.
And in the middle of it all, massive and forebodingly dark, sat the meteor. Its colour wasn't to make out in the fog, but the city's lost inhabitants had surrounded the colossus with countless thin, round arches, all bending in different directions. Rings within rings within rings, once maybe even spinning, now standing still forever.
"Fascinating, isn't it?" mumbled the Master and dropped to his haunches next to me.
I closed my open hanging mouth and nodded. "That's definitely the top one of all abandoned places I've visited. Will visit. We're really going down there…"
"I start to reconsider my regret coming here."
I looked at the Master. A small smile was playing on his lips, eyes firmly glued to the crater. "What do you think you'll find there? A way to break the TARDIS' seal? Something to rule the universe?" I playfully nudged him.
Instead of answering, however, he kept glaring at the city, the smile fading into a thoughtful look. Something sad was suddenly in his features, or maybe he radiated it slightly; I could never quite tell.
Since he wasn't going to answer, I crawled out of the sleeping bag, rolled it up and reattached it to the backpack. The others were also getting up one by one, getting aware of the sight before them. Excited chatting filled the cold morning air with life. Ulkta reignited the fire and rolled up some dough that she stabbed with sticks to bake them. Meyla and Bor were sitting together, him holding the map while she pointed at it sometimes, both giggling and shooting glances here and there.
"Blimey," I heard Donna as she joined me by the fire, plugging some of the stick bread out of the ground to taste it. "Last time I had to wee outside was at least twenty years ago. Just glad I have enough tissues with me."
I giggled and also tried one of the breads. They didn't taste like much, but filled the stomach quite well. "I can't wrap my head around this place," I said. "It's so huge!"
"I'd say, it's roughly the size of London," added the Doctor. He picked up a pebble and scanned it with his Sonic. "The impact scattered quite some minerals around. Still in the ground everywhere. Bet they built the first houses to mine the meteor. Rest came later."
"We never heard of a meteor," told Darwil. "The crater also was only a theory. We thought it was just a normal valley. But this…" He weaved a hand through his hair, his voice dropping to almost a whisper. "This is Jir. It has to be."
While they were talking I plugged my camera from the backpack and walked around our camp to get the best angles at the scenery. The Doctor had promised them the pictures afterwards and I would have used the opportunity anyway. You don't get to see something like that very often. Not even while travelling all of time and space. It was hard, however, to capture the sheer size of the crater, the conversion from three to only two dimensions ruining the effect. I scowled at the preview, but it was the best I could do, especially since I was by far no expert.
"Photos," mumbled the Master, glancing over my shoulder. "Always felt like cheating to me."
And without further explanation he strode away, joining the others as they started to pack up. The hike down would probably take a good part of the morning, if not longer and everyone was more than eager to finally enter the place they only knew from legends. For us it didn't have the same meaning, but their excitement was rather contagious. The day was bright, the mood high and the goal promising.
Only the memory of my strange dream cast a small shadow over it.