Fulcrom couldn’t purge his sense of failure. He liked to finish what he started: complete cases, write up the notes and file them with his superiors. The fact that he would never find Shalev and never complete his mission was somewhat irksome.
No, it pisses me right off.
He was nearly done with Villjamur and only had a few final matters to sort out, but without having hunted down the troublemaker behind all the recent acts of terror he would never shake the feeling that he had let people down. It went against all his better qualities to walk away from it all; but, somehow, he felt he was doing the right thing.
Fulcrom approached his apartment building but could sense that something wasn’t quite right. Opposite, he loitered in the shadows of an alleyway, watching a little longer as two of his neighbours scuttled out with urgency, peering behind them as they were leaving on some illicit business. Where they were going wasn’t important; Fulcrom realized that someone had put them in this agitated state.
All I want to do is get back, pack, wait for Lan, and clear out of here. Now they have come for me.
Fulcrom heard a movement behind. Pretending not to have noticed, he reached down to his boot, as if to adjust the laces, though in fact drew out a blade. He felt a boot come down on his back and he tumbled forward across the cobbles, grazing his chin. He reached for his knife and leapt up, narrowly missing a moving fist . . .
Five figures in long grey coats, hats and scarves had him circled.
‘There’s no way out, not now, Fulcrom.’ He couldn’t tell which one was speaking, because of the scarves, and because they all seemed to blend into one unit without a hint of individuality.
‘Just come along quietly,’ another said. Maybe another, maybe the same one.
Fulcrom laughed. ‘I know how you guys work. You think I’m stupid?’
‘We only want to ask questions.’ They inched ever closer, tentative steps, waiting for a response. Each was gripping a dagger.
‘Sure you do.’ Fulcrom spun his blade in his hand. Maybe bravado would buy him another minute or two. His tail became perfectly still in anticipation of their next move. At the end of the street, a small family had gathered to watch the scene.
Two of them attacked. Fulcrom slid to the floor and kicked the back of the nearest one’s knee, sending the figure sprawling forwards. It was a dark-haired woman, and he grabbed her hair, tugged back her neck, held his blade to her throat. She pressed both hands to the floor, trying to push herself up.
Using her as a hostage, he gently hauled her up and positioned himself so the rest of the agents were one side of him.
‘You’re not an idiot, Fulcrom. Let her go.’
‘I’ve killed for less,’ he replied, breathing heavily through his teeth.
‘No you haven’t. You’ve no capacity for evil.’
‘Don’t be a fool,’ another said. ‘You’re cut from a different cloth.’
Fulcrom’s back pressed against the wall. With no direction to go, no exit available, there was no point in wasting a life. ‘What do you want – really?’ Fulcrom released the woman and pushed her forwards. He dropped his knife to the floor with a clatter.
‘We just have some questions regarding a missing Knight,’ one of them said.
‘I thought you might,’ Fulcrom replied.
‘You can help us then?’
Fulcrom looked down, sighed, shook his head. ‘Not a chance.’
‘We thought you might say that.’ One of them lunged forward with a flash-punch to his stomach, but he’d tensed to absorb the blow. He didn’t hunch, didn’t show them the pain they would enjoy delivering. Another came, then one to his jaw, and one on the other side. He staggered forwards, and felt a blow to his head. He dropped to his knees on the wet stone.
They bound his hands and his mouth, hauled him to his feet and shoved him along the street. The only fear he felt was that he wouldn’t see Lan again.
Vuldon regained consciousness and could hear Tane warbling away to someone in the distance. He noticed the curved brickwork typical of either a cellar or the cultist zones back in their own quarters. The background humming seemed to confirm this.
Breathing was a struggle. It felt as if he could only take in a fraction of the air he was used to. His muscles . . . they were numb. He expected some deep ache, but there was nothing to feel.
Cultists have treated me, then. Explains why I’m not burning on some fucking funeral pyre.
‘Vuldon, old boy – you’re awake then.’ Tane approached him, his fur dappled in the lantern light. His claws gripped the end of the metal-framed table on which Vuldon was lying.
‘Barely,’ he replied. ‘The fuck did I get here?’
Tane explained – with apparent glee – how he personally climbed down the wreckage to find him. Vuldon did not fall directly down because a rooftop had broken his fall. Instead, he burst through two floors of the house, which suffered minimal damage from falling masonry, due to its sheltered positioning against a support.
‘You’re rather lucky, I’d say.’
‘If I was lucky, I wouldn’t have fallen, idiot.’
‘Well, we’re out of front-line action anyway.’
‘What do you mean?’ Vuldon demanded.
‘As soon as you’re well enough, we’ll be offering our fine powers to aid the Emperor in Balmacara.’
‘I might just stay here and pretend to be dead then.’ Vuldon glanced up at the brick ceiling.
‘Now don’t be like that, old boy,’ Tane replied, as patronizing as he could manage. ‘The war has meant we’re rather ineffective down below. There’s nothing we can do to help the civilians – that’s in the hands of the military.’
‘So we’re to be nanny to Urtica.’
‘On the contrary – it’s a huge privilege. We’re going to be there, guarding the inner sanctum.’
‘That’s not why we were given powers. We’re to help people, not one person.’
‘Orders are orders,’ Tane replied.
‘There’s nothing else we can do?’
‘When do we go?’
‘Whenever you’re fit to work.’
Through gusts of snow, the cultists from the Order of the Equinox approached the gates of Villjamur by foot. Verain couldn’t feel her legs any more. Each time she collapsed to her knees, Dartun would place a hand on her back and she would recover just enough to march on for another few hours. By now everyone realized they were prisoners and that there was no means to escape. It was futile. Verain barely noticed the conditions of the refugees outside, the mud-baths that had frozen up, the small pit fires, the skeletal dogs that trotted around the paths between crudely constructed tent homes. The place stank of excrement. But she would have given anything to join them right now, to be free again. Her memory was failing her. Her existence was being lost to a mental fog. The names of her fellow cultists were fading slowly from her mind. Verain was following Dartun – that was all she could do.
They trudged up the incline towards the first gate, refugees milling about their trail with a vague curiosity. Four soldiers in full battle regalia exited their small stone station and marched out towards them, their swords drawn.
‘Sele of Jamur,’ muttered a man with rat-like features. The others formed a casual line alongside him, eyeing the cultists with deep suspicion.
Dartun was silent.
‘We’ll need to see written reasons for entry,’ the soldier drawled, ‘and any associated medallions, before we can permit you through to the second gate.’
Dartun stepped closer and the soldiers held up their swords.
‘Remain where you are,’ the soldier cautioned.
Dartun chuckled without saying a word. He moved further forward and the soldiers slipped through the mud to intercept him; their swords clattered into his arm, pinging off its surface. They didn’t know what to make of his immunity to their blows.
With the guards in a state of surprise, Dartun grabbed the nearest one, placed the palm of his hand on the man’s back and the armour began glowing red hot. While the other guards looked on dumbly, the man screamed: his skin was burning, his face reddening and then, with a muted burst, the soldier exploded within his armour. Dartun discarded the bloodied armour to one side and, with a grin on his face, regarded the other soldiers.
Vuldon, with all the dignity of a drunk, lumbered groggily to his room. He lived abstemiously, never wanting to accumulate much these days. There was a bed, a chair, a cupboard of identical uniforms, and a desk, which he’d insisted on having installed. He sat at his desk, lit the lantern, and pulled sketches from a hidden compartment.
It was, more or less, the final scene.
MythMaker was about to defeat the king of the underworld, the crude parallel to Caveside, with a series of magical creatures he had summoned. This had been the culmination of the entire story, and Vuldon was wondering if he could say everything he wanted to say in the last picture. Moreover, ever since Ulryk had discussed with him the potential of actually bringing drawings to life, Vuldon had been struggling to incorporate this into his work. He wasn’t even sure if what the priest said was true. Still, there was nothing to lose in trying.
MythMaker had been Vuldon’s perfect coping mechanism. Ever since his withdrawal from public life, these picture stories had helped him to stay in touch with the essence of who he was – someone who wanted to do good, to please people. That’s what I am. I just want to please, to be accepted. On these sheets of vellum, which were nailed to the various noticeboards and school-room doors about the city, he could continue saving imaginary lives. After he had pinned one up, he watched from a distance the reaction of children as they herded around to read the latest part of the story. Before the end of the day, youths might be re-enacting some of the scenes. He’d hear their innocent cries as they play-acted the defeat of Doctor Devil or the Unicorn Queen.
Now the city was falling down around them, it seemed that MythMaker could be the one way of genuinely helping the children. If he was to protect the Emperor in these desperate hours – if he was to be away from the streets and unable to help people – then he would find a way of saving them: through MythMaker and using the priest’s advice. Assiduously, with a remarkable speed that only practice could bring, Vuldon inked down the final acts of MythMaker.
A couple of hours later, Tane knocked on his door. ‘Vuldon,’ he called, muffled through the wood, ‘time to go.’
Fucksake. ‘I need more time,’ he grunted. ‘I need to head out before we see the Emperor.’
He heard Tane sigh. ‘There’s going to be no stopping you, I suspect.’
‘Damn right there isn’t.’
Vuldon opened the door with a bundle of the sketches under his arm and a purse of nails in his pocket, slipped past Tane, out of the building and into the night.
Snow was drifting across the city in thick flakes, but at least it wasn’t raining much. He wore a cloak and a scarf across his face. For years he had paid others to do this job for him – that was, until the money ran dry, so he had taken to posting the work himself. Given his recent fame, he felt he had to be especially cautious not to be discovered.
Across the city – under bridges and viaducts, past the shadows of wrecked taverns and behind military lines, Vuldon pressed a nail through dozens of copies of MythMaker, fixing them to doors or noticeboards or any sheltered surface he could find. This sketch was special, he knew it, and had to be seen by as many of the city’s children as possible.
The city was a depressing vision. Walls had crumbled, blocking paths, whilst militia groups prevented him from gaining access to certain roads, but he managed to target all the main thoroughfares on the levels farthest from the attacks. He couldn’t get to the crude Caveside plazas, though, which was of concern – he wanted all children to have equal access to these sketches. Once he had finished he dashed back across the city to his headquarters. Two hours late, but I don’t give a fuck.
When he came in he found Tane slumped on the couch, staring up at the ceiling.
‘Ah, the traveller returns. What were you up to?’
‘Never mind. Let’s go babysit the Emperor.’
As they ascended the steps of Balmacara, past one unit of soldiers and heading towards another, they were presented with a panorama of the rise and fall of the city’s rooftops.
‘Wait,’ Tane cautioned.
‘I can hear something.’ He turned his head into the powerful wind trying to locate exactly where the noise had come from. ‘There,’ he said, pointing just as a flash of light soared up and struck the cloud-base, then a bridge collapsed somewhere around the third and fourth level. A cloud of dust rose up from the streets, and a sound of rumbling followed moments later.
‘We should hurry,’ Tane said.
Guardsmen, having recognized Vuldon and Tane, ushered them up the steps of Balmacara quickly, and led them into the relative warmth of the Imperial residence. A commanding officer of the Dragoons led them through the lantern-lit corridors, past a number of soldiers who were buzzing back and forth. They looked as if they were stockpiling food and weapons, ready for Balmacara to be a fortress.
‘Wouldn’t these warriors be better out there protecting the people?’ Vuldon said.
‘Aye, sir. I suspect they would.’
‘You agree?’ Tane asked.
‘Then why the fuck aren’t you out there?’ Vuldon demanded. ‘People are dying.’
‘Not our decision, sir,’ the soldier replied, ‘not our choice. You’ll see.’
Vuldon looked to Tane, who simply shrugged.
Through layer after layer of security, through ever-darkening passages, and into an antechamber, they finally entered a vast room, with a desk maybe fifty paces away at the far end, and little else except a huge burning hearth and several vast windows that offered a remarkable view of the city. No lanterns were lit, no candles, so once they stepped away from the firelight, they were in a room of shadows. Flashes lit up the horizon now, booms of illumination that lingered and hovered, before scattering themselves throughout the cloud base. Snow raked against the windows, wind rattling the glass against the frame.
A figure was silhouetted against the flares of magic in the distance, but as they marched closer, Vuldon and Tane realized that the person wasn’t looking out, but facing towards them.
‘The Knights of Villjamur,’ the figure gasped. ‘I am relieved that the two of you are now here. Those fuckwits behind you are about as useful in a war zone as a silk handkerchief.’
‘You wish us to leave the premises and join the fighting, my Emperor?’ the commander queried, with obvious sarcasm.
‘No, no.’ Urtica’s tone was suddenly devoid of control. ‘Get to your stations.’
As they retreated, Vuldon glanced across Urtica’s desk, on which lay several maps of the city and the Archipelago, and there were more on the floor, too – enlarged, detailed plans of various sectors. On a small table to the left, there sat a platter of various meats on the bone, with a huge carving knife sticking out of it.
‘What do you want us to do?’ Tane asked.
Urtica observed him in the darkness. Vuldon could see the flicker of the firelight reflected in his eyes. ‘They tell me that the city is falling.’
‘Who?’ Tane asked.
‘Them,’ Urtica made a vague gesture to the door. ‘The soldiers. The military. The idiots should be able to handle a few Caveside yokels. They’ve got all sorts of superior weaponry – and all the reports I receive are of military losses, of streets overrun and claimed in the name of the anarchists.’
‘What’s the situation now?’ Vuldon asked.
‘We are withdrawing.’
‘To here, I take it.’
‘Indeed,’ Urtica replied. ‘All councillors and their families are now ensconced within Balmacara.’
‘What exactly are you going to govern over, if there’s nothing left of the city?’ Vuldon demanded.
‘Do not question my motives. I am the reason you are both still in employment – the reason you were first given your new lease of life.’
Like I give a fuck, Vuldon wanted to say, but even he thought better of it.
Urtica seated himself at his desk and ran his hands through his hair.
Tane looked to Vuldon then back at the Emperor. ‘Do you really think the anarchists are going to come here to get you?’
‘Without a doubt – they have been trying since that Shalev bitch came to Villjamur.’
‘Then why bottle yourself up now?’ Tane asked. ‘Why not have as many soldiers on the streets, wearing them down?’
‘It is not the anarchists I’m worried about.’ Urtica slid back and gestured to the flares of magic. ‘Do you know what that is?’
‘No,’ Vuldon grunted. ‘Not really.’
‘Neither do I, precisely. It is a cultist who has entered the city and, allegedly, begun a systematic destruction of Villjamur. Two garudas are taking it in turns to update me on his progress, and each time they return their news is even more disturbing. So far, much of the first level of the city has been destroyed.’
‘What do you mean destroyed?’ Tane asked.
‘Reduced to rubble. Blood in the streets. People burned by magic. Houses collapsed. How precise a definition do you require?’
‘Does he fight for the anarchists?’ Tane asked.
‘He fights for sport, so it seems.’
‘What do you want us to do?’ Vuldon asked. ‘You want us to stop him?’
Urtica’s face seemed to have aged massively – even in this light, Vuldon’s acute vision could make out his tired eyes, the desperation etched on his face and the constant fidgeting of his hands. This was a man on the edge. There was none of the usual calm authority or resplendence that Vuldon had previously observed. ‘Would you mind?’ Urtica breathed, as if it now took all his reserves to form speech.
‘The hell are we going to do against a force of nature like that?’
‘You will find a way,’ Urtica replied insistantly. ‘This is what you were created for.’
‘Or what, you’ll kill us?’ Tane said.
Urtica leaned back in his chair and grasped the arms with bony hands. ‘No. But I will kill the former investigator, Fulcrom, who is currently being interviewed by my agents. You . . . you had a close bond with him, yes?’
Tane’s expression revealed his concern. Could he really have caught Fulcrom? Vuldon wondered. The investigator said that he’d be a wanted man . . . ‘You’re lying.’
‘I don’t need to lie,’ Urtica hissed. ‘But if you want proof, I could perhaps fetch for you a finger? Something more convincing, like his arm perhaps?’ There was an almost manic tone to Urtica’s rasping voice, suggesting that if his city was going down, then he was taking everything else with him.
‘We might not be able to do anything,’ Vuldon muttered. ‘If this person’s as strong as you say he is.’
Urtica began to snicker softly. Then he addressed the surface of his desk. ‘My city is falling. Everything I worked for is failing. Those scum from Caveside need to be eradicated. And this cultist needs to be stopped. I don’t care how – just get it done or I’ll personally see to it that Investigator Fulcrom bears the full weight of my disappointment at your failure.’
Tane placed a furred hand on Vuldon’s arm. ‘We’ll see what we can do.’
It was carnage. Verain watched though tears as Dartun threw his magic about the city without reason or rhyme. Like a man possessed, he drove his arm into walls, ripping through stone to collapse houses into the street. Men and women ran screaming into the streets and watched in slack-jawed horror as their homes were decimated.
‘It’s good to be back, no?’ Dartun bellowed with a frenzied grin at his cowed order who shadowed his footsteps – too afraid to do anything.
The skies were darkening overhead, and lantern lights in windows indicated all the people looking on. She wanted to tell them to get out – evacuate – but knew they would think she was mad. Where else did people go when their world was falling apart? Home, of course. Citizens on the first level had begun to barricade themselves in, but the act hadn’t done them much good – Dartun was somehow rupturing the very ground, popping up cobbles and flagstones in street-wide spurts. She was numb to it now, they all were. They merely watched, inert, as he ripped apart the city of her birth.
The first show of formed resistance came on the second level of the city. Standing at an intersection, where two streets banked up identical-looking slopes, two cultists from an unknown order had brought a crate of relics and tried to conceal themselves behind a wide grey-brick well. Filtering in alongside them were soldiers she recognized as being from the Dragoons. They fanned out to form a shield wall, while behind them about a dozen archers took position. In the dark skies above, two garudas moved in slow circles, their wings barely discernible.
Please stop him . . .
After some brief orders echoed across the street, arrows were let loose. Verain turned to face them, opening her arms in the hope that one might take her. She closed her eyes . . .
Dartun held up his hands, generating an invisible barrier that sheltered the members of the Equinox. Arrows weren’t deflected, they were disintegrated. The archers turned and ran as they realized how utterly useless they were. The other cultists moved from behind their own relic-originated shield wall and planted a few objects just in front, before retreating. Safely alongside the military, they turned back to view their work. Dartun laughed and walked forwards. He bent down and lugged a stone at the invisible wall they’d put before him. He repeated the gesture with a handful of similar stones, all the time stepping closer and closer. Then, as if the wall had become water, he pushed himself through – much to the disbelief of the two cultists. The soldiers moved shields to one side and revealed swords before advancing on Dartun.
He crouched into a ball. Screamed. Stood and spread his arms like a prophet.
A wave of energy knocked every soldier back several feet, sending their swords and shields clattering about the place. The two cultists turned to run and Dartun caught one of them by his feet. He pulled slowly, dragging the man back. With one hand on the cultist’s waist, Dartun pulled again at one leg.
Verain could only hear the screams, which faded into a crunch as Dartun ripped him in two pieces. The cultist passed out just after he saw his own ruined legs sail back over his head and into the path of the military personnel.
‘Who’s next?’ Dartun bellowed.