On one of the central sections of Villjamur, beneath the disused aqueduct, a short walk from the corner of the long street called Gata Sentimental with its narrow, five-storey buildings, and under the subtle night shadows caused by a bold stone bridge, two men in hooded tunics and thick overcoats were navigating their way across the vast, empty iren, avoiding the patches of moonlight. A pterodette lunged down, inches from the cobbles, hunting bats, before it scaled one of the numerous, crenellated towers of the city at a high velocity. A sharp air pervaded the scene, and a fog was beginning to roll in from the sea, bringing with it a deadly evening chill.
‘There’s a foul air tonight,’ one of the men muttered.
‘Quit your fairy talk, Liel,’ sighed Brude, a barrel of man. Stubble smothered his face, and his small, beady eyes examined the distance for signs of life. Satisfied, he regarded his companion. ‘You’ve been spurting all sorts of shit since the banshees stopped their keening, and tonight’s no different from any other. Or have you been hanging around with kids and reading too much MythMaker, eh?’
‘No,’ Liel replied. ‘But them banshees going all silent just ain’t natural, I can tell you that much. Word is, someone’s got their tongues.’
‘It’s easier, idiot, because who’s now here to scream for the dead? No one, that’s who. There’s less fear when you’re murdering someone, so it makes life easier. Now, stop being so pathetic. You should be more like your mate, Caley – he’s not chicken shit and he’s years younger than you.’
Liel squirmed a nod.
Brude couldn’t stand the scrawny man being so paranoid. He was eighteen, slow for his age, and his incessant paranoia was infectious. Brude turned his furtive attention to the edge of this iren, one of the largest in the city, where a few glass shopfronts were glittering like starlight.
Among them he searched for a name . . .
There it was, a decorative and faded green facade, its square sign creaking gently in the wind. In the daytime, people of the city would mill about outside this shop and goggle at the metallic trinkets and precious stones beyond the glass.
Shalev’s instructions were, as always, to the letter. Forty days had passed now since she’d been working with them – the anarchists. Forty days of furtive undertakings, though strictly speaking, they wouldn’t ever call it work; they wanted to refer to it always as a collective. Work was still a form of wage slavery, they claimed. Work was getting grimmer and grimier, poor conditions forced upon people by propagating the fear of how bad the ice would become. Other folk felt they wanted secure jobs in such conditions, despite the poor pay and treatment. They wanted to remain in their front-room cloth manufacturers, labouring under restrictive conditions by the underground docks, but Brude wasn’t into such self-abuse. Rumour had it that the Freeze was destined to keep the ice here for decades, so he was fucked if he was having any of that.
Shalev had given them hope . . .
Caveside was a different place now and it had all happened quite suddenly. Two months ago the enormous but overlooked sector of the city was practically a slum, an enclosed shanty suburb that housed the majority of the population. There was resentment against topsiders, deep unrest and petty crime had flourished.
But now? Now Shalev was manufacturing miracles.
First came her remarkable cultist-engineered seeds. Barren zones of land, on which nothing could ever grow, were suddenly able to support tight patches of crops. Tolerant plants could now thrive with little light or water, and what were back gardens only in name became allotments. Food bloomed in the darkness.
Poorer smiths began to manufacture things for Shalev in exchange for food, and weapons: clubs, daggers and maces spread amongst the Caveside dwellers. But whereas once these would have been used on one another, now Shalev brought them together as a group. Connections were made externally and, somehow, surreal though it seemed, crops were being exported out from under the city to rural collectives, in exchange for their support. A barter economy, one without money, grew quickly – out of nothing – and Brude didn’t quite know what to make of it all. But what he did know was this: Granby’s Gemstones was on Shalev’s hit list. That such a place could continue to exist was a symbol of the extravagance of the upper city, which flaunted such wealth at a time where thousands of refugees were dying right on Villjamur’s doorstep. It was a shocking, garish display of crass commercialism, Shalev had said. Or rather, that’s what people reported that Shalev had said, because the level of secrecy was immense for newcomers to their circles. Given the brutal determination of the military in this city to hunt her down, that was certainly understandable.
And all of this was why Brude and Liel were going to filch its jewels.
A couple of muscled lads were a whistle-call away, waiting with blades in case any of the city guard strolled by, but the added security didn’t fully reassure him. Brude and Liel flitted into the shadows as a priestess tottered across the ice to a nearby Jorsalir church, her skirts hitched up so the hem wouldn’t get wet. Once she had passed, the two men scurried along the perimeter of the open square, to the small alleyway alongside the jewellers.
Liel stood languidly, a blade clutched in his tiny fist. Brude searched in his own overcoat for the device passed along to him from Shalev.
Where is the damn thing, I hope I haven’t left the bugger in the caves. A-ha!
He whipped the object out with a conjuror’s flourish. It was a small tool that utilized some form of magic to cut through glass. Brude was adroit in urban techniques, having spent years educating himself in the ways of the thief, but this was something entirely new to his repertoire. He tilted the device, a long rectangular strip of brass, this way and that in the moonlight, discerning the correct side, then pressed it against the grainy glass for several seconds. He moved it along, held it for several seconds, moved it along, and so on, until he had drawn a barely visible circle about an arm-span across on the surface of the glass. Once the ends of the lines connected, he waited. The line suddenly glowed purple, flared brightly and, with a snap, the circled patch of glass fell in one piece into the darkness of the shop, whereupon it shattered. Liel and Brude quickly scanned the area in case anyone heard.
Liel tugged at Brude’s sleeve, and the thuggish man turned to follow his gaze.
‘Brude! Up there, Brude. Top of those walls, I swear I saw something.’
‘There ain’t a thing there, runt,’ Brude grunted. ‘Now come on.’ He heaved his boot up onto the windowsill, cleared the broken glass, then peered inside. In the near-darkness, he could see the glimmer of gemstones in their cabinets.
The wealth here is . . . staggering. Oh my . . . emeralds and rubies . . . Praise Bohr, it’s a fucking miracle all right. And a few were his for the taking, as payment, so long as he distributed the rest to the collective.
‘Brude,’ Liel whimpered, ‘you really should look at this. I ain’t kidding.’
‘Fucksake, what is it?’ Brude demanded, turning back.
Liel wafted his arm. ‘Up there, on them roofs. Few hundred yards away, a fraction left of the Astronomer’s Glass Tower.’
From out of the sea of fog and above the crenellated sector walls, a figure could be seen gliding from rooftop to rooftop, tiptoeing across the moonlit tiles – then, seemingly, it ran through the air over a gap of at least twenty yards, its arms and legs flailing, only to push itself off another set of roof tiles with the daintiest of touches.
Fluidly, it manoeuvred itself towards them.
‘Hmm . . .’ Brude placed his finger and thumb in his mouth and, very loudly, gave two sharp whistles. A moment later, boots were clattering on the cobbles: the back-up was arriving. ‘Tell them what’s going on, I’ll get some gems, then we fuck off quickly. Right?’
Liel nodded tentatively, his eyes still fixed on the approach of this rooftop newcomer.
Brude glanced at their comrades, three blond thugs standing furtively next to Liel, both kitted out in tight military-style clothing and both brandishing swords. Brude nodded to them, and they whispered back, ‘Evening, brothers.’
As Liel opened his mouth to explain the situation, and Brude poked his head back into the shop, a voice called out from across the street:
‘I wouldn’t do that if I were you, chaps.’ He was well-spoken, whoever he was, silhouetted against the moonlit glare on the wet cobbles, with his hands on his hips. A tail swished back and forth, and for a moment Brude assumed it was an Inquisition rumel. Brude pulled his attention away from the jewellers and, standing alongside his comrades, peered through the fog that had now made itself present at street level.
‘The fuck are you, telling us what to do?’ Brude called back. ‘You Inquisition or something?’
All he could see at first was that the silhouette started walking towards them. Was this the same one as the figure previously spotted on the rooftops? He couldn’t have dropped here that quickly. He must have approached from a different part of the city.
‘I’m one of the Villjamur Knights,’ the stranger replied.
‘What does that mean?’ Brude replied.
‘It means’ – another voice now, bass and firm – ‘that we’re here to stop you from clearing out this shop.’ A figure came from the side street to Granby’s, a hulking mass of an individual.
Bloody hell, Brude thought, what muscles . . .
Brude realized that their exits were cut off on two sides and they would be required to fight their way out. Then a third figure came from over the nearest rooftop, gliding to the ground like a garuda – but there were no wings here, the figure merely moved through air as if able to bend it to its will.
And a moment later, noting the long hair and feminine grace, Brude realized this figure was a woman. What the hell is a woman doing here? he thought.
The smaller of the approaching men moved into a solid patch of moonlight and Liel gasped. Brude cuffed the younger man’s ear for showing fear. ‘Idiot,’ he whispered, but the runt had a point in being afraid. The stranger was . . . animalistic, though not unlike a rumel. His nose was flared and broad and black, and his face showed signs of . . . fur. There was something remarkably feline about him. From his fingers extended thick claws. He stood tall, and walked with an alien grace. And he seemed to stand there, bathing in their shock.
‘You think you three freaks can handle the four of us?’ Brude heckled, drawing a large dagger.
Two of the thugs sprinted with their swords brandished, heading towards the hulk in the alleyway, and they vanished into the street-level fog. Waiting in the darkness, Brude heard their shuddering screams, the sounds of blood pooling slickly on stone, their swords clattering to the ground.
The remaining thug gawked at Brude, who signalled for him to move. The man dashed ahead towards the cat-like figure, who sidestepped him, raking his claws down his back. The man moved back with a scream, clutching his ribs with his free hand. He turned, striking his blade this way and that, slicing nothing but air as the figure repeatedly moved out of range with acrobatic speed. The blond thug lunged to and fro, tiring quickly, then the cat thing struck him: he swiped his clawed hands across the man’s face and throat, and in an instant the thug collapsed pathetically, clutching at his wounds.
The final figure – the woman – moved towards Liel and Brude. With her dark hair tied back, and relaxed pose, this plain and willowy girl appeared fairly harmless. Brude decided he would act, and he moved towards her, brandishing his dagger. As he made the first swipe she seemed to move backwards, stepping up onto the air itself, and pulling away from him at a curious angle. She stepped across him – in mid air – and he found himself chasing her legs, trying to slice at her heels.
With her arms extended, she kicked him in the face and he spun backwards, slipping on a patch of ice to collapse on the ground. Pain shot through his entire body, and his jaw thronged from the impact. The woman lowered herself to the ground and effortlessly kicked away his blade.
Brude lay there dazed, wondering if he was going insane. The other man – the cat thing – was present, standing alongside the woman, both now looking down on him. Brude could clearly see the cat thing’s short, grey-striped fur, and the bizarre vertical pupils, which were set in an otherwise slender human face. Each of them wore a thick, fitted black suit, with some sort of symbol in the centre of the chest – an upright silver cross, set within a circle, dividing it into quarters.
‘This fellow absolutely stinks,’ the cat thing muttered.
‘Really?’ the woman replied, looking down on Brude. ‘I can’t smell a thing.’
‘Yes, well, it seems there are a few disadvantages to these so-called powers that no one told me about. You could do with putting on a little less perfume yourself.’
‘Why thanks. I’ll keep your precious nose in mind when I’m getting ready.’
The big man spoke: ‘You would’ve thought he can smell the shit that comes out of his mouth.’
Liel was shoved forward onto his knees alongside Brude. The snivelling man was absolutely petrified, with tears in his eyes, but was otherwise unharmed – he had probably surrendered at the earliest opportunity. His hands were held behind him by the brutish man, who spoke. ‘We take this one and drop him with Investigator Fulcrom for questioning. This other fucker, we let go.’
‘Why would you let him go?’ the cat-man asked. ‘We’ve just caught him.’
‘Because, you fool, we want people to know what we’re capable of doing.’ The brute snapped back Liel’s arms with a crack and a scream, and the runt began to cry again. The muscled man pulled out some rope from a thick belt, and bound his broken arms together.
He knelt down, bringing his broad stubbled chin, wide nose and dark eyes ever closer. He clutched Brude’s throat in one fist.
‘I’m called Vuldon, and we three represent a new entity. We’re called the Villjamur Knights. You might want to make it perfectly clear to your comrades, or whatever the fuck you call yourselves, that we are going to hunt you down one by one until the city up here is safer. You will comply with the Emperor’s laws.’
Brude squirmed a nod, desperately, and meekly pawed at Vuldon’s fist.
‘All right, that’s enough, Vuldon,’ the woman said.
He didn’t let go.
‘Vuldon,’ the woman urged, ‘don’t kill him. Come on, let’s go.’
Vuldon eventually released his grasp. Air rushed in. Brude spluttered and heaved, turning on his sides to grip at the wet cobbles.
A moment later, once he had composed himself, he realized that the so-called Villjamur Knights had gone, taking Liel with them.
Brude was left wounded, in the company of corpses.
Vuldon shoved the man into a cell, which was more like a cage, and the scrawny fellow curled himself up into a ball, hugging his knees, shivering. The room was constructed from a dreary red brick, the ceiling curved and dripping with moisture from somewhere. There was a bucket in the corner.
‘Go easy on him,’ Lan cautioned, but such requests seemed to be futile. As she lit a coloured lantern to one side, she met Tane’s gaze, but he was coy about confronting their concern over Vuldon’s potential. Vuldon seemed to have rediscovered old ways.
Vuldon stepped inside the cell and stood for a moment with his legs apart, his fists clenching and unclenching repeatedly. With the side of his boot, he gave a gentle kick to the skinny figure, who turned onto his back, groaning.
‘What’s your name?’ Vuldon demanded.
‘Liel . . .’ the thief spluttered. ‘Please don’t hurt me. I never wanted to be there.’
‘What was your purpose tonight – simple theft?’
‘We was just going to take a few jewels, yeah, nothin’ else, I swear.’
‘Just us, just to buy a bit of bread, nothing else.’
‘Liar,’ Vuldon said, and threw a lightning-quick punch to Liel’s stomach, forcing a gasping scream from the man’s mouth.
Lan flinched. Tane couldn’t even watch.
‘Now, who were you working for?’ Vuldon demanded.
Liel was writhing back into a ball again, so Vuldon kicked his back. Liel cried out.
‘Who’re you working for?’ Vuldon raged.
‘Sh . . . Shalev.’
Vuldon smiled grimly at Lan. ‘You see? A little persuasion gets you a lot. You can’t pussyfoot around in this job.’ He hauled Liel up by his neck and lugged him forwards against the wall.
‘Vuldon!’ Lan snapped, stepping into the cell. Vuldon seemed to be a structure made entirely of muscle and anger. She did not and would not reveal her fear. She’d been through worse in life, was living through several mind-fucks, and this lump of masculinity would not upset her further.
‘You think you can get answers by being nice?’ Vuldon grunted, stepping aside. ‘Be my guest.’
Lan brushed past him and crouched by Liel, whose face was creased in agony. He was crying, and had been for a long time now. She placed a hand on his arm and he flinched – she was alarmed that could elicit such a reaction.
‘Liel,’ she said soothingly. ‘No harm will come to you if you can help us. We just need to find Shalev and, if you can help, we’ll free you. It’s as simple as that.’
‘No one knows w-w-where to find S-Shalev,’ Liel mumbled through his sobs. ‘That’s the p-p-point. It’s a secret to us in Caveside. All we knows is things is happening down there, and we can all help out if we want.’
Lan rested her hand on his shoulder, and this time he didn’t flinch. He stared through tear-filled eyes at the wall. ‘What details can you give us?’
Vuldon lumbered in the cell again. ‘This is useless.’
‘Keep him away!’ Liel said in a panic, and Lan, surprised at her own assertiveness, held out a hand, a line which Vuldon did not pass.
‘I’ll fucking kill you if you don’t tell us anything,’ Vuldon taunted.
‘No,’ Lan said, ‘he won’t.’
Liel didn’t know where to look, so he drew his knees up and buried his head in folded arms. ‘We’re not allowed to know, none of us is. Nearest any of us can get is the Central Anarchist Council – bunch of people who used to be somebodies, then nobodies, then somebodies again once Shalev came along. They ask for certain jobs to be done out in the main city, and we help them in exchange for some food and weapons. No money involved, like, it’s all helping each other out.’
‘What about the Bell Spire – do you know who was involved with that?’
‘N-nothin’. There’s a core group of fighters maybe, but it’s usually just Shalev doing that – and as I said, we don’t know nothing about her.’
‘Can you tell us anything about this Central Council?’
‘It’s temporary, they say. Only until things is more equal between the caves and the upper city.’
Lan asked, ‘What else is going on down there?’
Liel gawked up and for the first time this evening had composed himself. ‘Plans. Big plans. I’ve only heard tell, like, but nothing in stone. But it’s gonna be big and a lot of people are getting excited.’
‘Tell us the rumours, idiot,’ Vuldon grunted from the shadows.
‘That the upper city ain’t gonna be no more,’ Liel said. ‘They’re gonna take it down, and everyone with it. I told you, big plans.’ Liel began to chuckle, and Vuldon rushed in with a punch across his jaw and the man collapsed unconscious in the corner of the cell.
Lan glared at Vuldon, trying to control her rage at this brute.
‘What?’ Vuldon merely shrugged and turned away.
‘I think we should let the Inquisition conduct interrogations in future,’ she muttered.