Clouds began to thicken above Villjamur. They brought a light snow at first, then it became heavy and relentless. The already hazardous streets became worse. Those civilians from the outer city not engaging in the combat locked themselves up in their homes and hoped for the best. A thousand lanterns were lit almost simultaneously in response to the bad weather and the wild cries of the anarchists’ advancing army.
Tane and Vuldon sprinted through the streets of Villjamur, jumping over corpses left from skirmishes. Bodies lay in slushy snow, blood smeared all around them. Blood beetles flowed in weird spirals up the sides of walls in order to get to the corpses and then they tore into flesh with a ferocious appetite. There appeared to be equal amounts of civilian and military casualties, but those of the former group wore crudely constructed armour, giving them the appearance of soldiers, so it was often difficult to tell.
Now and then the two Knights checked to see if any of the bodies were alive, but each side had done well to look after their own.
In street after cobbled street, there were clusters of individuals either looking to find their way to safety or to despatch violence. More than a few arrows or bolts whipped near the Knights, highlighting their unpopularity. All they could do was ignore it, and Vuldon did his best to remember Fulcrom’s words, to not let his anger take over again.
The city was – as he put it to Tane – fucked. There was no doubt about that. It didn’t take much to realize that there were more Cavesiders than military, and they were organized and well armed. Small groups were stationing themselves by street corners, blocking access with upturned carts or crates or whatever junk they could find. The military, for the most part, seemed non-existent. As remarkable as it seemed, the city was gradually being taken over by the anarchists.
When they approached what was an empty iren, Tane urged Vuldon to stop. They pulled themselves behind a wall in time to witness purple light erupting from one end of the courtyard to the other. Between immense walls, and beneath two wide-arched bridges, four cultists were engaged in combat. In dark cloaks they dashed about this way and that, taking refuge behind disused stalls, collapsing awnings and sending wooden crates skittering towards their assailants. It wasn’t at all clear who was fighting whom, or which sides they represented, but none of them fitted the description of Shalev. When two of them were side by side with relics in their hands they shot bolts of light at the other pair, and bricks exploded from the wall behind them, leaving gaping holes. Suddenly the other pair summoned the cobbles to rise up as if someone was flipping a rug, sending the other two up into the air, and the ground collapsed back into place, making the sound of thunder.
Tane whispered to Vuldon, ‘Do we help these people?’
‘No,’ Vuldon grunted. ‘They’re not the innocent. We’ve no idea who’s Empire or who’s anarchist. We’ll probably end up getting fried anyway.’
‘Good point,’ Tane replied.
They took another route around the scene, listening to the sounds of the cultists ripping up the city.
Then there were children.
Vuldon could only worry about them as they made their way across a bridge over the iren where the cultists still fought. From one side he watched them marching across, about ten or so, with two adults guiding them. He didn’t know which group they were – maybe schoolchildren trying to get away from the conflict – but when magic flared up from below, he knew they were in trouble.
Some of them gasped: and it was exactly the same noise as all those years ago. Vuldon froze as memories rose up from his past yet again. He had hoped he was over the incident, but their faces, their cries, they seemed identical to the ones who had perished and who he had been unable to save. With the magic beating the underside of the bridge, the children screamed and refused to move. They huddled and the two men who were guiding them across could not seem to budge them. One of the adults peered over the edge to assess the situation below and a vast blast of purple magic blew back his head. He didn’t even have a chance to scream, and his charred face peered Vuldon’s way before he collapsed in front of the kids.
I’ll be fucked if I’m letting them go this time.
‘Come on, Tane,’ Vuldon said.
The two Knights sprinted across the bridge. All across the city there were streets burning. Smoke drifted up in a much greater volume than the usual chimney smoke, carried out across the tundra by the breeze. Snow skidded into his face, so he kept his head down. He approached the children, none of whom were older than ten. The remaining adult, a man in a wax rain cape and a tricorne hat, confirmed they were from one of the wealthier schools nearby.
‘There’s a safe house that a lot of families are sending their children to,’ he said. ‘They want shelter on school property – it’s safer that way.’
‘Seems like a good idea,’ Vuldon replied. The children seemed pleased to see him. A few of them knew his name. Obviously the People’s Observer had not yet affected their opinions of the Knights just yet. Vuldon explained that they should move and get to safety.
Three of the children were crying as they pointed to the charred corpse of their teacher as another blast of magic struck the bridge.
‘We move now!’ Vuldon shouted. ‘Tane, stay at the back.’
Vuldon noted three children who were huddled on the ground dressed in their little rain jackets, unwilling to move, and he scooped them under one massive arm, then repeated the gesture with two more; all the while, magic raged upwards under the bridge.
He began running with the crying children beneath his arms; he looked back to see Tane copying him, a child under each arm and one on his shoulder, and the remaining teacher did his best to move the kids along behind.
Vuldon reached the other side and dumped the kids in a pile by the wall of an empty bistro. ‘Stay here, all right?’
He didn’t wait to see their reactions, and sprinted breathlessly back to the bridge. Tane passed him and as Vuldon surged forwards to collect the remaining children, the cat-man caught up with him again. Tane piled on three more children, two with frightened little faces, one smiling amiably as she played with the fur on Tan’s face. There was just one more boy, and Vuldon picked him up under his arm and took him to the end of the bridge.
The stone surface suddenly buckled and swayed, and this movement was followed by a deep explosion from below. Purple light rose up on either side of him.
He sprinted but it seemed too late: he could feel the ground beneath his feet fractionally more distant, as if he was walking on air. Keep going, fucker, he told himself. His thighs pounded, pushing himself harder than he had ever done.
Twenty feet away from the end he paused, seeing Tane waiting with an open stance. He hauled the child back and threw him over to Tane. The kid screamed as he was launched through the air.
Magic raged up around Vuldon. The platform disintegrated. Tane – leaping high – caught the child before collapsing to the ground with grace.
Vuldon sighed his relief—
—and then tumbled alongside the crumbling masonry.
Lan mounted the walls on a row of tall terraced houses, Ulryk on her back. He might have been old, but he was still bloody heavy. She had to skip sideways along a couple of rows of houses, facing the sky, since Ulryk constantly pulled her towards the ground and she couldn’t walk with the weight pulling her on one side.
Eventually they reached a rooftop covered in ice, and she slipped forwards, sending Ulryk tumbling over her head.
She pushed herself upright, ‘Sorry – I couldn’t help it – are you OK?’
Ulryk, as resilient as a boar, pushed himself up from the flat roof and rubbed his scalp. ‘Indeed, I believe I am.’ He instinctively checked his satchel, which contained the books.
From their position they could see more of the city, and the Astronomer’s Glass Tower, which stood a few hundred yards away. In between them and the structure, the civil war on the streets of Villjamur was reaching something of a stand-off. Imperial troops had garrisoned themselves in one of the major taverns, extending a makeshift barricade of assorted city detritus, blocking off the route. Behind it, about a hundred soldiers were poised with crossbows, waiting for any anarchist surge.
The anarchists were less well organized and were hiding in buildings a few streets further along: she could see snipers leaning out of windows, waiting to fire at any passing military patrols.
Tension hung thickly in the air. After the initial set-tos, no one wanted to commit to a manoeuvre. The Empire soldiers were outnumbered, that was obvious, but the anarchists were not able to get the better of the highly trained men and women.
All of this lay between Lan and Ulryk and the glass tower.
‘Are you sure you can’t do the ritual here?’ Lan asked.
‘I suppose,’ Ulryk breathed, ‘I can try.’ He rubbed his hands and reached into his satchel to withdraw the books. He walked to the centre of the roof and carefully sat down. There, he opened the books on various pages.
Lan strolled over to see what he planned. ‘Are the books the same?’
Ulryk shook his head. ‘They differ, many of the sketches and occasional tracts of script are dissimilar – deliberately so.’
He showed her two drawings of the same castle, which to her appeared to be identical. But he pointed out that figures were standing in the window of one drawing, and not the other. Ulryk suggested it was the equivalent of a prison. On another open page, there were different drawings entirely: one showed a small animal she’d never seen, another of a plant. ‘This tract of text,’ he explained, pointing to one edition, ‘discusses the history of the islands and how they came to be. The other, well . . . this is a panicked note explaining that the Jorsalir were attempting to have these works destroyed.’
‘Why would the editions differ?’
‘In case one got lost or destroyed. In one there are codes to explain what happened – a letter to a future generation.’
‘That’s some forward thinking,’ Lan said.
‘I am ready to attempt the summoning,’ Ulryk announced.
Lan moved away, watching him rearrange the books before him. Ulryk brought out his own journal and began flicking through it until he discovered the correct page of notes. Cross-legged, hunching over the books, he closed his eyes.
Lan turned away to watch the streets again. Long shadows clawed their way over the city; sides of buildings were shrouded in darkness. Above, the clouds were clearing and she could see the red sun approaching the horizon. It was going to be a cold night.
Ulryk seemed to be in a trance now. His fingers were pressed down on certain pages but his eyes were closed, his head tilted up towards the heavens as if seeking extra help from above. He chanted things in tongues that didn’t sound natural, let alone from the Archipelago.
The most important thing to note was that nothing happened. Eventually Ulryk looked up, not exactly disappointed. He gathered the books into the satchel and stood up.
Lan walked across the roof towards him. ‘The Astronomer’s Tower?’
Ulryk nodded, with an air of serenity about him.