Despite the comfortable wooden benches along the edge of the room, the Knights found themselves pacing. There was an open fire, and the floor was a beautiful mosaic of tiny red, black and green tiles. They were in a low-ceilinged, red-brick chamber, situated directly behind a platform overlooking one of the largest open plazas on the third level of the city.
In a ceremony just for them, the Knights were going to be presented to the people of Villjamur, and Lan truly couldn’t be bothered with it all. Why all this showboating? She had just begun to channel any annoyances with her situation into fighting criminals, and she felt good about doing good. Now they were set to become celebrities.
Fulcrom must have encouraged this situation. He was a thorough planner, his actions were seldom without purpose, and he worked to a level of efficiency that was beginning to annoy her.
OK, so he interests me. So what? Nothing was going to happen – nothing really could. She hadn’t been involved with anyone for years, but she couldn’t open herself up to another person, even if he was from a different species. She knew she couldn’t have children, so that got rid of the classic human–rumel issue, but what about him? Stop it, woman. You’re thinking like you’re shacked up with him already. She shook herself out of her thoughts. That way will only lead to pain . . .
Tane paced the room, seemingly delighted, and the man couldn’t stop smiling.
‘I remember having to do shit like this back in my day,’ Vuldon groaned. ‘You get used to it.’ His arms were folded, as always. He paused to stare at a religious mural on the wall, but he might as well have been staring into space. It must be tough for him, Lan thought, to have to dredge up his past.
According to Fulcrom, Emperor Urtica himself had requested this rally to promote awareness of the Knights. The noise of the crowd outside was intense. Impressive, she thought, that so many people wanted to see what the fuss was about. On the way here she had seen large boards erected, each bearing an artist’s depiction of the Knights standing side by side before the city. Placards displaying ‘Fight Crime’ and ‘Meet the Heroes’, and ‘Save Villjamur From Terrorists’ were being handed out by the city guard for people to carry in the crowds. Helping to embellish the reputation of the Knights before people even saw them were bards and poets singing songs on the major routes to the iren.
Suddenly she saw Tane looking towards the door, his senses flaring, then it opened – and Investigator Fulcrom, clothed in his finest Inquisition robe, entered bringing echoes of the hubbub from outside in. Smiling and full of encouragement, he said, ‘Right, you’re on.’
Lan glanced to Vuldon, who sighed, ‘Let’s get this charade over with.’
Fulcrom led them outside to a section of the vast balcony concealed by heavy and lurid purple banners, providing a relative sanctuary. From in front of the material divide, they could hear the Emperor speaking: ‘. . . crime has become so troublesome and overburdening to the city guard and Inquisition that we must have new figures to aid the city – and what figures they are. Already they have put twenty criminals into gaol, and saved thirty lives . . .’
Lan nudged Fulcrom and whispered. ‘When did we do that? That’s not true, is it?’
‘No,’ Fulcrom admitted with a wry smile, ‘but he likes to get people excited.’
‘. . . and’, the Emperor continued, ‘they represent a new move for this developing city. Citizens . . .’ He let the word hang in the air.
‘Here you go,’ Fulcrom whispered.
‘. . . I present to you the Villjamur Knights.’
Lan, Tane and Vuldon all walked forward from behind the vast banners. The sun was out, bright and blinding and shining off a thousand wet rooftops. Below them, immense crowds were applauding and whistling and cheering, peering out from behind crenellations, or perched on windowsills. Exposed to such an intense noise, Lan felt hesitant. Tane and Vuldon seemed perfectly at ease.
The Emperor himself was standing to one side in his finery, clapping and gesturing them forward so the crowd could get a better look.
Tane and Vuldon marched to the edge of the balcony, receiving gasps from those nearest and, reluctantly, she followed. The citizens of the city, in their dreary layers of waterproofed cloth, extended as far as she could see. The mob was endless. Some started chanting for them to do something, tricks, fly, whatever.
‘Lan, why don’t you hover for them?’ Fulcrom called, and motioned her forward.
Begrudgingly she stepped up onto the rail of the balcony then jumped upwards and backwards – slowly and with a flourish, her hands either side for balance – and there were screams and whistles of awe as she landed softly a few moments later.
She immediately turned to Fulcrom. ‘It’s like being in the circus all over again.’
‘They need to see it,’ Fulcrom said beaming.
When she turned back, Tane was crouching on all fours, traipsing up and down the rails with perfect balance, and Vuldon was picking up huge hunks of masonry and throwing them in the air to catch in his other hand.
But will they be comforted by this performance? she thought.
That evening things returned to normal: the crowds had dispersed, people were tucked up in their homes, and Lan was on her own.
The Knights split up and spread themselves across the city as individuals, confident in their own skills, and wishing to extend their watch across a wider area.
It was early evening, and whilst the irens were busy packing up, wares being shoved into crates, vendors watering down their fires, two young men burst through the throng to attack a middle-aged lady who was hunched under a thick fur coat and fat emeralds. They grabbed her bag and jewels and ran zigzags through the departing crowds.
Lan leapt up along the side of a building and sprinted underneath the guttering, around thirty feet up from the streets, safely out of the reach of snow and ice. People pointed and gasped at her progress, cheering in some quarters, but she tried to ignore the attention, and scooted after the delinquents. The weight of the world yanked her muscles down to one side, causing her body to ache, but whenever she concentrated, she found herself able to override the natural forces in order to maintain her upright position in this new plane. She leapt over open windows, across alleyways. Horses and carts rumbled by underneath to her left. The light of the day was vanishing fast – but she was gaining on the thieves.
She could see them now, aiming for the more concealed passageways, so she pushed herself away from the wall and back upright, gliding down to the ground. She ran through the air, towards them and, with one foot extended, kicked the neck of the nearest – who was no more than a boy. He lurched sideways, collapsing to the ground, dropping his bag.
Jewels spilled across the icy flagstones.
As Lan landed she thrust her heel in his stomach, winding him, then she peered up from her crouch to see the other vanishing down a dark passageway. With a crowd gathering round her, applauding her, Lan pulled some rope from her side-pack and tied the youth’s hands behind his back.
She marched him back to the Inquisition headquarters.
With a pocket half-full of jewels, Caley skidded into Caveside, through a wide opening in the rock that looked like the maw of a gargantuan beast. Resting his hands on his thighs, he heaved breath into his lungs, confident that that bloody Knight woman was no longer following him. Standing, he straightened his woollen hat and unbuttoned the collar of his shirt a little more, allowing himself to cool.
That was close, he thought. Can’t believe she caught Rend. The twat was always the careful one and now look at him.
He marched into the caves proper, his nose twitching at the stench of wood fires and something more unsavoury. The texture of the streets changed: lanes became thinner, and the buildings were taller, almost leaning on each other for support, with thick wooden beams and thousands of tiny coloured stones pressed into their surfaces. Many houses had once been whitewashed but were now all shades of grime caused by smoke from chimneys. Some of the houses betrayed an older history, having been carved out of the rock, and were rounded with crude circular windows. Warm light glowed from their insides, and when looking across the rest of the underground city, these windows were like starlight. It went some way to make up for the absence of stars and moons up above.
Not every Cavesider was poor. There were signs of wealth down here, from those who leeched a living off the outer city, some who dealt in illicit gemstones or middlemen who supplied cheap labour throughout Villjamur and surrounding farms; those people occupied the houses higher up, nearer the outer city, away from the decrepit sewers and poorly supplied shops.
The cobbles hadn’t been maintained, and more than once Caley caught his toe on a hunk of stone jutting out. Rotting vegetables and dead rats littered the side of the street, in places piling up against walls. A woman – one he knew to be a prostitute – was strutting into an alleyway, holding the hand of a client, something that was happening less and less these days. A tavern at the end of this stretch of road opened its doors to turf out two brawlers, who carried on their fight on the side of the street, whilst around them cats padded explorative paths into the darkness.
It wasn’t all bad, here – being sheltered by the caves, it was warmer than the outer city. And things were starting to change. People had more food these days, and money didn’t matter with the exchange irens operating without coin. Caley marvelled at how he could simply trade things without scraping around to find the money. People were in better spirits.
That was because of Shalev.
But he needed to let Shalev know of what had happened to Rend – they all stuck together, they were all one community. If someone was caught, they would have to deal with the issue. Shalev had made a family of these Caveside dwellers.
He sauntered half a mile deeper into the caves, across the border of what the Emperor was now labelling as Underground East and Underground South, in an effort to map out the urban sprawl. He headed through what was locally known as Blacksmith Plaza, Sahem Road, Mudtown and Carp Alley. There were passageways and routes here that few knew about, and through which even fewer had travelled, dirt tracks and alleys with hundred-year-old graffiti. A couple of old guys were playing a complicated board game on an upturned cask of beer, whilst somewhere inside an old pipe was whining out a folk tune. A dog trotted up alongside him briefly, then vanished into one of the alleyways.
He palmed hand-slang with a few of the kids he knew. The citizens he passed all knew him in one way or another, and that was good – because otherwise they might have killed a stranger, such was the level of secrecy around here. He saw more than one person instinctively reach for a weapon, these underground soldiers, these comrades without uniform.
Two of his brethren stood guard with fat sabres beneath their cloaks in front of a recent excavation into the cliff face. He nodded to them and entered. It was a magic-blasted route, a damp-smelling, claustrophobic passage, and, standing tall, he continued with one palm gliding against the smooth rock, focusing on the single spot of light in the distance.
Just as he reached it, a hand grabbed him by his shirt and he was yanked forward into the chamber beyond and sent sprawling across the floor.
‘Hey,’ he spluttered, rubbing his chin, ‘it’s me, retards, Caley.’
A row of swords were pointed towards him, glinting in the candlelight. Seven men and three women were staring down, and Caley squirmed under their glare.
‘Let him through,’ a female voice commanded.
As they stepped aside, Caley stood and brushed himself down, nodding to them all.
The room was spectacularly decorated in mosaics, echoing patterns Caley thought came from far-out islands – not that he’d been to any. There were bookshelves and workbenches and row upon row of relics and a fire in the grate. And there, perched on the end of a desk, was a woman with no hair, and bright-blue eyes. He was unable to guess her age, but placed her in her forties. She had a round face, not unpleasant, and her nose appeared slightly squashed, as if some invisible force pressed lightly on it. Wafts of incense floated around the room, and whether it was that, or the way she controlled the mood in the room, he felt utterly at ease.
‘What is it, brother?’ she asked.
‘I needed to see you, Shalev. Rend was taken when we was out nicking stuff from this rich woman. We got a good haul, look . . .’ He thrust his hands into his pockets, then offered Shalev a scoop of gems and necklaces.
Shalev smiled crookedly. ‘A good haul indeed, Caley.’
He loved hearing her talk – her tone was rich and rounded, her accent heavy and exotic. She invited him to dream of a world far from his own existence.
The others in the room began to stir, moving towards Caley’s hands, but Shalev asked a question out loud.
‘Do you think’, she declared, ‘it is right to be tempted by such trinkets? These are the things that separate them out there from you down here. The trinkets are obtained by forcefully removing their materials from other islands, often by slaves who have been forced to submit to the labour. And they are now used to keep you out of the newer houses, out of real daylight. Just you remember that. These are what repress you.’
Caley got a better look at the folk gathered here, most from the old unions, the smiths, or some who made a career scavenging the old mining deposits for remnant ore, and who somehow scraped a living. There were a couple of scholarly types, too, who went around as intellectuals, filling the back rooms of taverns with their theory. Still, they were good sorts. And all could not take their eyes off the contents of Caley’s hands, so he placed them on the desk behind Shalev to rid himself of the burden.
‘Good, Caley. You’re learning well. So, tell me – what happened to Rend?’
‘Give you one fuckin’ guess,’ Caley retorted.
‘Don’t speak to her like that,’ someone behind him said.
Shalev waved the comment away. ‘I’m not your superior,’ she reminded them.
‘ ’Xactly,’ Caley muttered. ‘You ain’t no real Council.’
‘They are our temporary Central Anarchist Council though,’ Shalev corrected, ‘and they have a role to play in regenerating this underground society before we can spread out power evenly. Once we have established ourselves in the city and created a more equal society then we shall dissipate naturally. So we should treat each other with great respect, Caley.’ She regarded him with such a powerful gaze he thought he might turn to ice. ‘I am going to hazard a guess that it was the Villjamur Knights who took Rend?’
‘Yeah, the female one. She ran across the damn walls of the buildings to get to us!’
‘The Villjamur Knights,’ Shalev breathed, more to herself than anyone else. ‘They are becoming annoying, are they not?’
‘It ain’t safe out there any more. We can’t just go around nicking shit without one of ’em waiting in the shadows.’
‘Absolutely.’ Shalev pushed herself off the desk and towards the grate, whereupon she studied the flames. For a while no one said anything, and Caley shuffled his feet waiting for something to happen.
Suddenly Shalev had an answer: ‘The creation of the Knights is simple: to promote fear in those who challenge the Empire. A popular strategy. So if they are after such a campaign, we will use the same technique, too. It would be a good idea to target more obvious symbols like them. We will target the military, perhaps, the city guard who patrol the streets and we will kill them publicly – moreover, fewer guard will make it easier to take back more purses or more items from shops, which feeds into our greater purpose. And the aim of our more vicious attacks is simple: to remove the structures of power and authority. It is power over another that prevents there ever being a fair society, and the Emperor will not have a clue that our aim is a complete deconstruction of Villjamur.’
She turned and ruffled Caley’s hair and examined the gathered body of men. ‘Are we agreed, brethren?’
A chorus of ayes.
‘But I moot that we do not kill all of those in authority,’ she continued. ‘First, we bleed them of information, since we need more knowledge about the Knights – these may present a severe problem for our movement.’ Shalev picked up a copy of the People’s Observer and gestured to the front page. ‘This vicious filth and hate-spreading propaganda suggests they are invincible, but we know better than to believe what we read, don’t we? They must have weaknesses, and we will find them. These walking weapons must somehow be disabled.’
Mid-evening, no later than nine, Lan returned to the streets and teamed up with Vuldon on a small bridge over a hefty drop. One of the distant spires, towards the front of the city, was churning out thick smoke. Skies had cleared, presenting the smoke cloud as some horrible shadow-creature, leering over the first and second levels of Villjamur.
‘Should we investigate?’ Lan asked.
‘Could be a house fire or could be a more serious attack,’ Vuldon replied. ‘We’ll not find out by staying here.’
She kept pace with him, skipping slowly across the rooftops, while he traversed the bridges, spiral stairwells and discreet alleyways framed by high stone walls. She could hear his breathing and boot-scuffs constantly as he thundered beneath her along the streets like a bullish military horse.
The spire, when they reached it, was set on the second level of the city; a huge, curved building, probably no more than a hundred years old, crafted out of coarse granite blocks. From the ground the thing seemed immense. Starlight defined its edges, which led to impossible heights and up there somewhere tiny flames began to lick their way out, flaring into the night sky.
Vuldon said to Lan, ‘You should get up the side of the building if you can and crack open some windows on the way. If I remember jobs like this, you might get a lot of people at the windows trying to jump in order to get the fuck out of there. Can you carry a human or rumel? You might have to.’
‘I’ll do my best,’ she replied. ‘I’m not as strong as you, but my inner forces should be enough. I think by now I can do some tricks with gravity.’
‘If you’re not sure—’
‘I’ll be fine,’ she snapped.
‘Good. I’ll clear the way from the ground up, and smash my way through any closed doors.’
Lan crouched then pushed herself upwards and onto the side of the building, sprinting up the stonework. Out of the corner of her eye she saw Vuldon slam-kick the front double doors and barge his way inside.
The wind grew stronger as she climbed higher. As she reached a level parallel to bridges, people began to shout at her, but she couldn’t hear what they were saying. With her heel she smashed in the first window, but the fire hadn’t reached that far down. When she withdrew her foot she nearly slipped and stumbled – her heart missing a beat – but with her arms out wide and more focused concentration, she stabilized herself again.
Lan resumed her ascent.
Screams were leaking out from the inside. She could hear them faintly at first, someone wailing, like the call of the dead. Are we too late? Lan wondered. The noise spurred her on and she rose ever upwards, smashing in windows, always looking in to see if anyone was inside who needed help.
Then, with her foot on one windowsill, a hand suddenly clutched her shin – it was a pale-faced, dark-haired woman garbed in white robes. Stitches arced across her forehead and she appeared to be phenomenally undernourished.
‘Are you OK?’ Lan shouted, prising the woman’s fingers from her leg in case she stumbled. ‘Do you need help?’
The woman simply stared back at her, wide-eyed. Lan climbed down and angled herself into the grim room. Inside was a bed, a desk and a bucket. The metal door at the other end was locked and, Lan noticed, possessed a barred grille at eye level. Smoke began to drift down, so Lan turned, grabbed the woman, who simply became rigid as if expecting Lan to beat her. Lan dragged her to the window and, using all her strength, edged the woman up onto the sill; with an almighty heave, Lan jumped into the air with the woman clutching Lan in a death grip. Together they tumbled onto an adjacent bridge.
Loosening the woman’s constricting hold, Lan grabbed either side of the woman’s face and stared into her eyes. ‘I’ll return to see if you are OK – I promise.’ With that, she dashed back through the air, onto the side of the building, and continued further up.
The smoke was pungent now, and Lan thought there were probably a whole host of fabrics being combusted inside. At this height the cityscape opened up around her, in full panorama, little lights in the various nearby rooms, people standing at the windows, people on the bridges – there was no doubt that Villjamur could be a beautiful city.
Then above was a distinct scream.
Lan smashed in another window and smoke billowed out. Oh my . . . Lan wrenched her gaze away in shock, but forced herself to look inside, holding her hand across her mouth because of the fumes.
A corpse lay on the floor in a large pool of blood – it was a woman with her throat slit and a sharp chunk of glass in her bloodied hand. She was clothed exactly like the woman a few floors below, and again the room was furnished in the same way.
Lan headed further up the side of the building.
As the wind ravaged her, she managed to reach the penultimate floor. Again smoke billowed out when she kicked in the window. She waited to let it clear, gripping the edge of the window frame for support, but the smoke kept on spilling into the evening air.
Eventually, holding her mouth, Lan climbed inside.
This wasn’t a room like the others. It was a mezzanine, with once-grand stairways and an opulent lobby, decorated in shades of grey and purple. A layer of smoke was crawling across the ceiling, and the heat was intense, even though she couldn’t see the fire.
Vuldon’s voice: he was shouting for people to exit the building.
Lan plunged further inside to locate him, and a stream of people drifted past her with a dreamlike reluctance to escape the flames she could now see roaring away in a vast chamber just beyond. Vuldon’s hulking figure was practically flinging people out and down the stairs.
Suddenly one of the supporting frames behind him gave way; the ceiling began to buckle, one floorboard at a time snapping under the strain. Vuldon lurched forwards, and the fire upstairs collapsed down with an enormous noise, then began to spread. The room was now blocked by blackened and burning wood.
‘Don’t just stand there, you stupid bitch!’ Vuldon shouted, ‘help me get them out!’
Lan glided to his side, the smoke starting to infiltrate her lungs. They had to be quick, so with Vuldon she began to smash the blockade with bits of furniture – metal stands and chairs – and soon there was enough of a clearing for her to squeeze through. Flames engulfed her, but she concentrated on channelling the effects within, and the fire began to respect some abstract boundary around her body. Absurdly, Lan was now repelling the flames, and inhabited a bubble of her own making.
Focus . . .
There, under a hefty workbench in the centre of the room: a group of people with frightened faces were huddling together. Lan finally reached them, knelt down and extended one arm, and tried to coax them out.
They wouldn’t come. Frustratingly, they simply looked away, some shaking their heads.
‘I’ll help you!’ she shouted. ‘We’re here to get you out.’ Still they wouldn’t come. She tried to pull one of them, but they resisted.
‘Magic person,’ she thought she heard one of them say.
‘No, I’m not a cultist.’ But it was no good, they weren’t going to move.
Vuldon crashed in behind her and lumbered to her side. She told him of the situation. To her shock he lifted their workbench shelter, toppling it backwards. ‘Come on, you fuckers, get yourself out of here. Move!’
He violently heaved them forwards, and they screamed at him. Lan didn’t know what to do, but followed Vuldon’s lead, and pushed them outwards.
‘Look out!’ she yelled. Another support fell, smashing two of the group through to the floor below with screams, leaving a gaping hole. Lan watched in despair. She felt out of her depth. She wasn’t made for this, wasn’t used to seeing such horror close up.
Vuldon was bellowing at her to move but all she could see were the two frightened faces that had plummeted down. She heard him swear then flinched as he grabbed her by the scruff of the neck and hurled her out past burning timber, where she finally came to her senses and began guiding the survivors down the stairs.
A stone spiral staircase lined the way down, and as they moved past various rooms – cells – Lan peered in to check for other victims or survivors, but there were none. Just what was this place? It was cell after cell, not exactly a prison, but it was no place of freedom.
Heading down the stairs, they all drifted away from the heat. She couldn’t see Vuldon any more, but trusted he would have the skills to survive. Finally, she guided the remaining survivors out through the smashed main door, a sign of Vuldon’s work. She heaved in the sharp air, and then realized that she had been crying – either from the smoke or the intensity of the incident, she didn’t know which. She composed herself.
Twenty-four survivors shivered in the cold. Each of them was wearing an identical, shapeless pale gown. They trudged around in circles, always looking down to the ground, never at each other. Two of them vomited against the wall, three sat down cross-legged in a vaguely child-like gesture. She checked some of them for injuries, and each bore strange markings around their heads. Scar tissue blossomed visibly on at least half of them. Whenever she looked in their eyes she saw only distance, or vacancy, or a disturbed mind.
A few minutes later, Vuldon exited the building, caked in black dust, carrying a large book under one arm. He brushed himself down as he approached her, the picture of nonchalance.
Lan said, ‘Are they—?’
‘That was fucking awful, Lan,’ he snapped. ‘You should be fucking ashamed of yourself, just standing there like that while everything was burning.’
Lan stopped herself from replying angrily, and considered what he was saying whilst she recalled her embarrassing slowness.
She had failed.
‘I’m sorry, Vuldon. There’s just no excuse. I messed up.’ She knew he was right, but he had a special way of making her feel insecure again. His presence was intimidating, and she didn’t know how she was going to continue.
‘Least you admit it.’ Surprisingly he simmered and walked away. He addressed the survivors individually, examining what was going on, checking everyone was fine.
Soon Vuldon returned to show her the book he was carrying and in one large hand offered it to her. ‘What do you reckon of this then?’ His tone suggested he already knew the answer.
She opened up the tome, a heavy leather object, frayed around the edges, clearly something that had seen better days. Inside was a list of names with descriptions of behaviour and treatments. ‘Is it some kind of patient record? Maybe this place was a hospital.’
‘Not quite. It housed the mentally ill—’
There was a boom above as the fire began to move down the building, collapsing floor after floor. Vuldon looked back at her and continued, ‘And even with that in mind, something’s not right. There were relics in there – the kind you used to see back in my day. Diagrams on the wall suggesting there was research going on. If I didn’t know better . . .’
Vuldon marched over to one of the male patients and nonchalantly gripped his head. The man’s body became utterly limp in his hands, and Vuldon examined the scars around his head before releasing him.
‘It’s a fucking research centre!’ Vuldon shouted, returning to her.
‘Research – for what?’ Lan asked.
‘Cultists literally poking around in people’s heads. I haven’t seen one of these places for decades. Fucking disgusting.’
‘What shall we do with them?’ Lan tilted her head at the patients.
‘We’ll lead them to the Inquisition headquarters. Other than that, there’s nothing else we can do. They’re helpless. They were made to be helpless. Transformed into a bunch of walking experiments. Cultists often use humans for research purposes, testing out the technology of the ancients to further their knowledge.’
Lan asked, ‘But who do they get to work on?’
Vuldon replied, ‘Those at the edge of society, mainly, so long as they’re all quite healthy specimens. Usually not even from Caveside, because not everyone there eats well. No, they used to take those who committed petty crimes, or who were creating a bother for the Council, or openly rejected the will of Bohr, or they were queers, whatever was flavour of the day.’
Lan cringed at Vuldon’s coarseness, and the fact that homosexuals were also abused here. How could a city act in such a way towards its inhabitants simply because of their private lives?
‘Come on,’ Vuldon said. ‘We’ll round this lot up and march them somewhere less cold than out here. That’s all we can do for the poor shits.’
‘OK,’ Lan replied. ‘I left a woman on a bridge and I need to bring her here, with the others. I made a promise.’
‘Well hurry up then,’ Vuldon sighed. ‘We’ve not got all night.’