Lan examined the army stationed between their current position and where they needed to be. Troops had perched on rooftops, and there were anarchist snipers firing at anything that moved on higher levels. Cultists were attacking each other, too, shown by the purple sparks of light that crackled between buildings. She didn’t think she could make any successful leaps with the priest on her back without being noticed.
Time was slipping away and there was no other choice available: the safest thing they could do was head back the way they had come, back to Fulcrom’s apartment where they could work out another route or perhaps consult him on some alternative paths.
When they got to his apartment, they found the place was a mess. His door had been kicked open, his belongings had been ransacked. Papers and clothes were strewn about the place, drawers had been knocked over, pictures smashed.
Lan strolled down the marble-tiled corridor and knocked on the neighbours’ doors. Every one of them greeted her with some fear, whether it was because of her past or her attitude, she didn’t care. Only one apartment revealed anything useful. An interspecies couple, garbed in almost identical brown tunics said that people in long grey coats had started a fight with him outside the building.
Lan tried to hide her fear. Emperor’s agents. ‘How long ago was this?’
‘About two hours,’ the woman said.
‘What happened at the end?’ Lan asked.
‘Well, they tied him up,’ the rumel said. ‘It seems pretty strange to do that to an investigator if you ask me, and then they took him up-city.’
They haven’t killed him, she thought. They just want answers. Lan smiled politely and only then noticed the children running around in the room behind, that this couple had children – when rumel and human relationships could not produce offspring, and suddenly it hit her somewhere deep inside, a place she’d deliberately hidden away.
‘We adopted,’ the woman said, noticing Lan’s gaze. ‘In case you were wondering.’
‘Oh no, I . . . No.’ She composed herself. ‘Thank you for you answers.’
Stifling tears, Lan turned back to Fulcrom’s apartment.
‘We hope you find him,’ the rumel called out behind her.
Lan arrived back to the room to find Ulryk sitting on the bed studying his books once again.
‘Ulryk, if I can get you to the Glass Tower, will you be all right on your own for a few hours?’
‘Of course. Did you find out what’s happened to the investigator?’
‘I think so. He’s been taken by agents working for the Emperor. If so, he’ll most likely be in Balmacara somewhere, and I want to get him out of there.’
‘Of course, of course.’
They set off once again with urgency, taking a different route, a circular one around the outskirts of the conflict. It was longer by far, but for some way there wasn’t the slightest sound of military personnel. Much of the city had locked itself away. As night took a grip on Villjamur, lights began to define windows of numerous shapes across the city, and people could be seen looking out onto the streets below, marooned in their own homes.
Every now and then Lan would run up a wall and across rooftops to assess the route they were on. They managed to navigate furtive channels through the city, going backwards, and sometimes underground, in order to make progress past militarized pockets. It took them two hours to get somewhere that should have taken half an hour, and all the time Lan kept thinking that she urgently had to get to Balmacara, she had to break in somehow.
‘There it is!’ Ulryk exclaimed, pointing at the Astronomer’s Glass Tower. It was an impressive structure, like that of a gemstone half buried in the cobbled streets. A circular path ran around the base, and the surface of the glass was incredibly smooth, so that she could see the lights of the city reflected in its surface. It had eight equal-sized facets, about twenty feet wide, but none of them seemed to feature a door or window, no method of entry.
‘Do you need to get inside?’ Lan asked.
‘I don’t know,’ Ulryk said, sincerely. ‘I could be near it, or on top.’
Lan looked up, but couldn’t see the end of the structure. Somewhere not too distant were the sounds of skirmishing. Two rumels ran the length of the street behind, their footsteps echoing in the plaza before the tower. ‘I can try to get you up there,’ she said, ‘just to be safe.’
Ulryk rearranged his clothing to check that it was tight. ‘Over your shoulder?’
‘There’s no dignified way to do this,’ Lan replied. She stepped forwards, leaned over and Ulryk tottered sheepishly towards her. She grabbed his arm and pulled him onto her back, tuning into her inner forces to push his weight off the ground so that he was as light as a kitten.
Lan took a run at the wall – gritted her teeth and forced herself upwards. Her feet slipped on the glass and she was forced to run and skip and jump in order not to collapse to the ground. Every step made a strange thud, which resonated through the building. The wind came at her in thick gusts once she crested the nearest line of slate roofs, and she could hear Ulryk gasping.
‘We’re nearly there,’ Lan called. ‘Hang on.’
‘What else can I do?’ Ulryk replied.
She was beginning to feel the pressure in her legs, the strain of using forces that she wasn’t supposed to have, but before she knew it they were approaching the top of the tower. As if blindly tackling a staircase, she sought the lip of the roof with one foot then, when she felt there was enough to take their weight, she pressed down, lifting the two of them over, and Ulryk was flipped across onto the roof on his side.
‘Oh, I’m sorry,’ Lan said. ‘Are you OK?’
Ulryk showed more concern for the books in his satchel: once satisfied they were fine, he began assessing his own body. ‘I am well,’ he said.
‘Good.’ Lan pushed herself back up. The rooftop was flat, with strange, gold markings carved into the surface. They looked as if they formed an atlas of the heavens, with little flourishes of algebra and diagrams sketched in between weirdly proportioned islands. Ulryk was already marvelling at the detail.
Lan looked back across the city, towards the formidable sight of Balmacara, the Imperial residence. Somewhere inside, the Emperor and his agents were maybe or maybe not doing something to harm Fulcrom.
‘Go, Lan!’ Ulryk shouted, looking up from his hands and knees. ‘You must help him.’ He stood up and took her hands.
‘OK, Ulryk, do what you have to do. If you succeed, what then? Should we arrange to find you? Fulcrom and I aren’t going to hang around the city, and I’ve no idea where Tane or Vuldon are.’
‘If on your return you could revisit this tower, then . . . that would be a boon.’ Ulryk moved to face the rest of the rooftop. ‘If I am honest, I do not possess the knowledge of what will occur from this point onwards.’
Lan smiled at him. ‘None of us do.’
She leapt to the tip of the tower and sought out the nearest roof. Lurking in the darkness, fifty feet below, and twenty feet across, was a bridge that would lead her to the third level of the city. What was more important is that she could see no signs of combat.
She tuned in. She found a spurt of magnetism.
She crouched and believed she could make it.
She clenched her fists and jumped.
The iron door opened, a beam of light fell across his hunched form, and the agents filed in one by one, as they did on the hour, every hour so far, armed with knives and questions. Fulcrom’s hands were bound in crude manacles, but he wasn’t chained to the wall – there was no need for that in such small confines.
It all started off nice and gentle, with the typical fake offer of friendship, as if trading goods. A mutual deal. Then matters proceeded to a little roughing up, mock-arguing among themselves, suggesting that his fate was yet to be decided. He guessed accurately at their techniques, but suspected he only had a couple of days until they would commence full-on torture, which might be even sooner given the state of the city. Their beatings centred on his abdomen at first, then his legs, leaving his face in a fit enough state to talk comfortably – they required that from him. A fist to the stomach, an iron bar to the legs, it blurred into one numbing onslaught. All they wanted to know was one very simple fact: where was Lan?
‘Why are you so bothered when the city is falling apart?’
‘The Emperor was insistent,’ one replied, and there followed an awkward silence.
‘Look, we know where the other two Knights are but what about the third man? Come on, tell us where it is – then all of this will be over.’
That was a lie, and he knew it, but he was enraged by their subtly abusive references to Lan’s gender. ‘She is long gone by now – if she’s got any sense.’
‘This Lan – does he possess senses like the rest of us?’ one of the agents asked.
Drawing on surprisingly deep reserves of strength, Fulcrom stood to his knees, stumbling more than once as he staggered to the centre of the room. His body thronged with pain. ‘Lan is a woman. Say what you will about me, but that woman has helped save numerous citizens of the city.’
The agents spoke amongst themselves. ‘Say, if he’s fucking a monster like that, does that make him a queer? Punishment by death, that kind of act.’
Fulcrom dashed forward and grabbed the nearest of the agents, pulling his manacles over the man’s head and back down tightly on his neck. They fell to the floor, the man’s screams choked by chains, and the agents swarmed over the pair of them, and Fulcrom remembered only being punched repeatedly in the face . . .
Lan stood atop the roof of Balmacara. The route here had been surprisingly easy. All the guards were now withdrawing into the complex, and preparing only for assaults from the ground. The anarchist threat was immense. Much of the city had been claimed, but elsewhere, at the far end of the city, a far stranger force was gathering. At first she thought that Ulryk had been successful, but this was nowhere near where she had left the priest. Fluxes of magic ricocheted across the first level, by the outer gates of the city. Out here, in the wind and the snow, it was like one of the glorious storms of old, when the weather was warmer and summer storms were intense.
Lan had made a decision: Fulcrom had given Lan her life back – no, he had actually contributed massively to allowing her a life that she had never known before. Whatever it took, she wouldn’t leave him in there to rot. This was no radical politics, but amidst a crumbling city it seemed to be something worth fighting for.
She walked along the edge of the roof and, when she sighted a guard with a crossbow patrolling the upper levels, she dipped down and crawled along between the tops of windows and the gutters.
Something moved down below, in one of the small walled gardens: shadows fought urgent, silent battles – she saw guardsmen hacked down from behind, or collapsing with a bolt or an arrow in the chest, and then a group slid along the perimeter of this enclosed zone, some leaping over the walls and then guiding the others through. Were these the anarchists? She felt a primitive urge to stop them, but then came to her senses. This is no longer your battle. Fulcrom is all that matters.
Then two voices, two figures running down the steps – these she recognized. Lan turned and skipped across the window frames, nearly slipping a few times.
From under the lip of the roof, she watched Vuldon and Tane stomp down the front steps of Balmacara, towards a unit of guardsmen.
What should she do?
‘Tane,’ she whispered.
She saw the werecat pause briefly, and Vuldon halted alongside him. Tane looked about the platform, then appeared to be in dialogue with Vuldon.
‘Tane, you idiot. It’s Lan, I’m here. Please play along.’
Again, dialogue between the two Knights. Had he heard her? She could only hope so.
‘Arrest me when I land, and tell them you’re taking me in!’
Before she could reconsider she pushed herself from the wall and walked through the air, then down across their path, where she skidded to a halt on the icy ground. A unit of soldiers began to approach, but Lan looked up expectantly at her former colleagues.
Vuldon nodded his understanding, and waved a big hand towards the approaching soldiers, who clattered to a halt. ‘If I were you,’ he bellowed, ‘I’d get back to your stations like the Emperor commands. We’ll take her in. She’s dangerous.’
Tane pretended to force her hands behind her back, and turned her around to face the steps.
‘What’s your plan?’ he whispered in her ear. ‘If we take you inside you’ll be taken into custody.’
‘I want to break out Fulcrom,’ she whispered, blinking as snow whipped into her face. Vuldon was negotiating with the soldiers to one side.
‘Do you want to join him in prison?’ Tane said. ‘They’ll kill the both of you – or at the very least, they’ll take away your powers.’
Vuldon marched over. He said quietly, ‘I guess you want us to help break Fulcrom out.’
Lan smiled. ‘Damn right I do.’
Vuldon said, ‘Well, the Emperor expects us to see to that fucking blur of magic on the horizon – it’s a cultist gone mad or something.’
‘That isn’t my concern,’ Lan said. ‘My concern is Fulcrom, and then Ulryk, who’s at the Astronomer’s Glass Tower right now, conducting his ritual. I’ve already seen the anarchists heading into Balmacara. They’ll act as a distraction. We’ve got a finite amount of time.’
‘Well, after we get Fulcrom, we should see what’s left of the city and evacuate it.’
‘Evacuate an entire city?’ Lan gasped.
The two men remained silent as they marched her up the steps, and it came as a relief to be out of the bad weather and into the ornate hall beyond.
‘We’re on our own from here I guess,’ Lan said. ‘No taking sides, no serving others, no orders. Just us, just the Knights.’
‘Fine by me,’ Vuldon replied. A young soldier slipped on the wet marble of the corridor in his hurry to check them, and Vuldon slammed a fist into his throat. Winded, the man collapsed in a clatter of armour.
‘Vuldon,’ Tane snapped.
‘What? Lan said we’re on our own.’
‘One could be more subtle about such things,’ Tane remarked with a sigh.
Caley followed Shalev and her revenge-seeking comrades through the black gardens of the Imperial residence. They scaled over the enclosed spaces, silent and rhythmic in their process. They flowed through abandoned guard stations, over beds of tundra flowers, ducked below ornate, iron-framed windows, and step by step they negotiated their way towards a particular window stationed by the residence’s kitchens. Two members of staff from Balmacara had long ago defected to the anarchists, and Shalev had gleaned all sorts of useful information including the layout of the residence.
Garbed in cheap, lightweight armour, and looking like some primitive leather-clad tribal warrior, Caley’s heart beat furiously as he watched his idol at work. Shalev held a relic underneath the vast window, activated it, and stood back as the glass melted into a pool of glowing purple slop on the sill beneath. Shalev grabbed the relic and stored it in her satchel. She leapt up, resting her knee on the edge, before manoeuvring inside.
Shalev held out her hand; Caley was the first to take it. Careful not to tread in the liquid glass, he hauled himself inside. As the others gained entry, he shuffled around in the darkness. The place reeked of stewed vegetables and herbs. He could see the shimmer of blades and utensils on one wall, beside two enormous stoves. Pots and pans were hanging above his head, and he swore he spotted a rat’s tail disappear around one corner.
Eventually the Cavesiders were all assembled inside and drawing their weapons before following Shalev through the darkness. Caley found himself getting increasingly angry as they exited the kitchen and rounded the corner. If he had been asked to imagine opulence, he would have struggled to match the reality of this place. How was it possible that people could live like this? Why was there a need for so much gold, so many gemstones, such a finely polished marble floor?
One of the others tried to knock a vase from its pedestal, but Shalev spun on her heels and gripped the ornament. She whispered harshly, ‘I know you want to destroy this place – but not yet, not now. First, we kill Urtica. With him dead, the fun can commence.’
Shalev led the way, having memorized the route from a crudely drawn map. She clutched a relic in one fist, ready to apply it, and Caley didn’t have a clue what it would do, but he felt safe with the fact that something secret and advanced could be used against the Imperials.
They progressed taking slow, cautionary steps, suddenly pressing themselves against the wall whenever anyone passed. Some corridors contained a constant level of activity: Imperial missives being carried about the place, soldiers marching with some urgency. It surprised Caley, given the time of night.
They climbed the stairs and reached the third or fourth level – he couldn’t be certain which it was – and they were presented with a vast, carpeted floor. Murals covered the walls and ceilings, though they couldn’t be discerned properly in this light.
Somewhere outside, the wind still moaned.
Lan was following Vuldon as he searched his memory and led them further and further into the heart of Balmacara. No one had stopped them to question their purpose, where they were taking Lan, and ultimately it ceased to matter. The focus of all activity was on the all-out war flaring in the city.
Tane was invaluable. He walked alongside Vuldon with his eyes closed, with Lan steering him gently, in order to tune in his hearing as effectively as possible. They scoured a few holding cells nearby, but there was no movement inside, not even anyone sleeping. There were no guards stationed, nothing to denote use of the facility. ‘I’m certain this place contains nobody at all,’ Tane declared.
Down ever musty stairwells, the walls giving way to raw stone, the Knights moved through the darkness, not wanting to even strike a match or speak to each other, in case they gave themselves away. Lan felt vulnerable down here, in these confines, without the freedom to move vast distances. Her faith and trust was in the other two – who had never once questioned her intentions, or her past.
Eventually they reached the solitary confinement zone. Everything had been too easy so far. Would Fulcrom be kept down here, in the worst of the gaols?
Tane waved again for them to stop, and on each occasion the tension was drawn out so much that it began to hurt. ‘Other voices,’ he breathed. ‘In the distance.’
Rounding the corner, she saw an area where a few torches were burning steadily. Further along the corridor two guards were sat playing cards. They must have been a hundred feet away. The shadows were bold, and Lan didn’t know what they might conceal.
Tane whispered, ‘Agents,’ and within a heartbeat there were four of the grey coats walking in a line towards them. She had no idea where they came from, but Vuldon stepped in front of her – for once, she wasn’t annoyed.
‘Hand it over,’ one of the agents muttered.
Vuldon grunted a laugh; here was a fight he wanted.
‘The he–she – give it here and we’ll say no more. You go your own way, we’ll go ours.’
‘The lady ain’t going anywhere,’ Vuldon declared. ‘At least, not with you.’
‘Lan is to be decommissioned,’ another said, she couldn’t see who.
Lan leaned forward to Tane and asked, ‘Is Fulcrom here?’
‘Indeed,’ Tane replied. ‘I believe he’s up behind the guards. One of those corner cells.’
Vuldon waded into the middle of the room, and beckoned the grey coats forwards. They fanned out, each carrying a weapon. Tane angled himself in alongside Vuldon, his claws extended, waiting.
Lan moved along the edge of the room, feeling the gaze of the agents upon her, but Vuldon saw to them. ‘Enough of this stand-off shit,’ he called out. ‘Give me a fight, wankers.’
They seemed to know enough about Vuldon to back off from him; in fact, they actively fled. It was absurd. Vuldon and Tane chased after them, hurtling through the shadows. Lan left them to it and sprinted at an alien speed to the end of the corridor, past the two guards. She peered in one cell: nothing, then another, nothing. She banged on the bars and heard a groan from the third.
Suddenly the two soldiers were upon her. She leapt up, hovered momentarily with her hands pressing up against the brick ceiling, then she kicked one of their heads. Stunned, the man fell to the floor, and Lan landed beside him. She looked up as the other brought his sword down – she rolled to the left, before she spotted more agents approaching.
‘Vuldon!’ she screamed. ‘Tane!’
‘Come here, you freakish bitch,’ one of the agents sneered, reaching out for her while the remaining guard tried to grab hold of her. Tane arrived just in time, drawing his claws across the man’s throat: it blossomed with blood and he collapsed. The second agent stepped back alongside the soldier.
As Vuldon arrived and started unremittingly thumping the face of one of the other agents just behind, Lan moved to gaze inside the last cell in the corner.
There, hunched up against the wall, Fulcrom turned his bloodied face towards her.
‘Stand back from the door,’ Lan spluttered, trying to force it open – unsuccessfully. It was made from some alloy, a good inch or so thick, and with a complex-looking locking mechanism. She gripped the bars of the tiny window set into the door, and shifted her feet up onto the wall to one side. Then she began panting heavily, seeking her reserves of strength. As the fight raged on around her, she reached deep inside herself . . . then a few moments later released a burst of magnetism. In the blast, her heels piled into the stone, her arms stretched taut at the elbows and wrists, and she wrenched the door – still within its frame – bringing the two surfaces inch by inch apart. She relaxed and collapsed to the floor.
‘Vuldon,’ she moaned loudly.
The big Knight lumbered to her side and, with one palm against the wall, he instinctively pulled the alloy away from the stone – it seemed so easy to get in now that she had prised the surfaces apart.
Vuldon moved back to allow Lan inside, where she took Fulcrom’s outstretched hand.
‘How are you? Did they hurt you?’ she crouched beside him and her questions were answered well enough by just looking at him. His face was covered in blood, one eye had swollen shut. And . . .
‘My tail . . .’ he spluttered. Down to one side was his thick tail – severed, like discarded rope. Lan felt the tears seep into her eyes. ‘How could they do this to you?’
‘They wanted to know where you’d gone,’ Fulcrom said. ‘But I wouldn’t tell them.’
This was because of me? She gathered him in her arms and sat with her back to the wall, and she was careful not to squeeze him too hard.
From the doorway and silhouetted against the crack of light, Vuldon, completely unmoved, said, ‘I saw to them, Fulcrom. I got them for you. Every last one.’ She saw drips of blood fall at his feet.
‘Much appreciated,’ Fulcrom replied. He seemed unsure what to make of Vuldon’s state.
‘Are you bleeding any more?’ Lan asked Fulcrom, stroking his hair.
‘No . . . My tail . . . it’s probably no use to me any more . . .’ Fulcrom spoke between breaths, still with pride. ‘What is the plan?’
‘First we need to clean you up.’ Lan then informed him of the rest: the rogue cultists, the anarchists being close to victory, Ulryk’s position on the Glass Tower.
‘Ulryk,’ Fulcrom said. ‘He’s the important one here. Whatever he’s doing, we must follow him. I have a suspicion that, if the city is as you describe, not a lot else matters.’
Caley had fallen to the rear of the group, cautiously looking back to see if they were being followed – so far, they weren’t. Still they moved through darkness. Caley’s inability to see anything made him even more nervous than he should have been. He wanted to see his enemies. As they reached the large, winding stairway that led up to the fifth floor, Shalev whispered for them to stop. Two soldiers were stationed on the next floor, either side of the top of the stairs. There was no way of passing without being spotted – and that would be it, their cover blown, attention drawn, the Emperor ushered out of the building.
Shalev ordered them to huddle and she drew out another relic, threw it up – something flashed – and some weird netted material descended over their group.
Caley heard the guards at the top of the stairs.
‘No, it’s lightning that makes flashes, idiot.’
‘That’s what I meant.’
‘Must have been.’
Through the material, Caley could see one of them move down a few steps to investigate. Caley’s heart thumped hard. The guard peered about, then returned to his post. ‘Nothing ’ere,’ he replied. ‘Urtica’s mad as old Johynn was. His paranoia’s getting to you.’
The Cavesiders shuffled up the stairs, smothered in the netting, and stood between the two soldiers. Satisfied there were no others around, Shalev rolled out under the netting and something else flashed on the outside. By the time Caley managed to squirm his way out, too, the soldiers were lying on the floor unconscious.
‘This is the level we need,’ Shalev whispered.
It was a vast place, full of wood-panelling and portraits of figures in regal clothing, and Caley was in awe of the ostentatious display. Shalev pressed her ears against each door as they passed, merely as a caution.
Around the corner: four more soldiers. Upon seeing them, the guards ran towards the Cavesiders but, using their crossbows, they shot the guards in the neck or face, while three of the anarchists dashed up to stop their bodies from striking the floor loudly.
Steering them silently to one side, Shalev pointed towards the largest door in sight. With a relic in her hand, Shalev tried the handles on the double door – with a remarkable quietness, as if she’d been well practised in the arts of burglary. To everyone’s surprise, the door opened easily, and in a hushed manoeuvre they flooded into the chamber.
Shalev activated a relic, which radiated a soft purple light across the room. It was vast, with rich carpets and a hearth that had long stopped giving out any warmth. There was a tall window at the far end, snow rattling against it. The sky was lightening ever so slightly as dawn dragged itself forwards.
Caley stepped towards a desk at the end of the room, and there he saw a leg poking out from beneath it. He ran around to the other side and called Shalev over. Everyone approached.
On the floor, the other side of the desk, lay Emperor Urtica – his throat was slit, a carving knife loosely gripped in one hand. Shalev moved in to take his pulse, tears in her eyes – tears of rage, Caley realized.
‘No!’ she cursed. Then it became a moan, a lament that she hadn’t had the opportunity to do this herself. ‘No, no, no, NO!’
Caley stepped back, afraid. Surely all that mattered was that Urtica was dead?
She picked up the knife from the Emperor’s dead hand, straddled his corpse and repeatedly hammered the blade into his chest and neck. Blood spat up as she withdrew the knife. ‘My family! My life! You took everything . . .’
A couple of the others tried to pull her off – she had transformed from the cool woman who had led them out of the depths of the city. Shalev eventually regained her composure, realizing what she had become. The now-mutilated corpse of the Emperor vaguely disgusted Caley. Everyone else looked at the body and then each other and then Shalev, who was covered in the Emperor’s blood.
A question lingered in the air, unspoken: Now what?
Caley stepped to one side, to where the Emperor’s hand pointed. Something had caught his eye. There, splattered by blood and almost hiding under the desk, was a piece of paper. Caley picked it up and opened it, but, embarrassingly, couldn’t recognize the letters scrawled across it. He noticed the official-looking insignias, and called for one of the others.
‘What is it, brother?’ The red-headed woman, Arta, came to his side, and examined it.
‘It’s been smeared in blood, but the rest – the rest seems OK,’ she said.
‘What does it say?’ Shalev snapped, approaching slowly, her chest rising and falling in great puffs as she tried to calm herself.
‘Hang on,’ Arta said, squinting at the paper in the dreary light of the room. Someone lit a candle and she thanked them. ‘Right it . . . reads as follows. “. . . in Villiren. Furthermore, from what we have witnessed, with the presence of this otherworld encroaching on ours, I am left with no other choice. I, Commander Brynd Lathraea, of the Night Guard regiment and senior commander of the Imperial Armies, do hereby withdraw the military – what is left of us – from Imperial duty under your name. We do not recognize your lineage any longer. To build a new future, to recover sufficiently, and to form an alliance with alien races in order to fight a further war, we will serve the Empress Rika, who you once dethroned. This is not a politically motivated decision, but one of great urgency in order to defend the Boreal Archipelago.” ’ Arta looked up and said, ‘I can’t see what the rest says, since the ink is blurred.’
‘Is that why Urtica killed himself?’ Caley wondered out loud. ‘He’s got nothing any more. No soldiers, no city, nothing.’
‘What with the Cavesiders taking over much of Villjamur, he must have choked on how quickly things imploded.’
‘Coward’s way out, if you ask me,’ someone muttered.
‘I wouldn’t be so sure that was all . . .’ Seemingly distracted, Shalev walked over to the window, allowing bright flashes to brighten her face momentarily.
Was that really lightning? Caley wondered.
‘I have never seen such power,’ Shalev breathed. Bolts of purple light shot upwards, and flared across the rooftops. ‘This force is immense. What is that?’
The others gathered around the vast window and stared out at the scene. As the snow rattled against the glass, the city trembled. Now they’d stopped still, Caley could feel the ground vibrating beneath his feet.
‘Is it a storm?’ Arta offered.
‘No,’ Shalev said. ‘No, I recognize that light. To the eye of a cultist, that is the energy of the ancients being used – as I would use it through relics.’
‘Maybe a bunch of cultists then,’ Caley said.
‘No, little brother,’ Shalev said. ‘Not on such a scale. I’ve seen the clouds turn on Ysla with only a fraction of the power of this being used.’
They watched in horror as distant buildings collapsed and bridges buckled.
‘Our brothers and sisters are out there,’ Arta gasped. Caley turned to Shalev. While the anarchists were in control and there was something of a plan, he could go with the flow, happy to help in whatever way he could manage. All of a sudden came the realization that there were people under those falling buildings – his fellow Cavesiders.
‘We’ve got to do something,’ Caley pleaded, and Shalev looked down at him, surprised at his sudden raw emotion.
She placed a hand on his shoulder. ‘I will see what I can do.’
Lan carried Fulcrom over her shoulder, from the depths of Balmacara and back up the way they came, until her body throbbed with so much with pain that Tane had to take over. The four of them progressed through dark ornate halls, the light of dawn showing through tall, arched windows. Momentarily they paused outside one of the Jorsalir prayer rooms, where Lan found a copper canister of holy water. As Vuldon and Tane stood guard, she mopped the blood from Fulcrom’s face, and checked for any further serious injuries. Admittedly, once he was cleaned up a little, she didn’t feel as bad. The stub of his tail was wrapped in cloth and that, too, would heal. He said nothing as she saw to his wounds – but his gaze was full of gratitude.
When they headed outside, Vuldon announced to guards that an Inquisition officer had been injured in combat, that there was a situation developing. Unbelievably they headed inside looking as though they meant business with their swords drawn, their shields raised, and heads down.
They’ll believe anything in such uncertain times.
The snow had abated, the wind had ceased, but sounds still travelled from afar: great rumblings, structures falling, screaming from the levels below.
‘Where now?’ Tane asked.
‘First,’ Fulcrom said, ‘let me see if I can walk on my own.’
‘It’ll be quicker if we carry you,’ Vuldon said.
‘Let me try to walk,’ Fulcrom said. Tane lowered him to his feet, and Lan came around to offer her support under one arm. ‘My legs are aching like bastards,’ Fulcrom said. ‘I need to walk it off though, and to figure out my balance now I’ve no tail.’
The pain on his face eventually faded, as he either got used to it, or could control his reactions. The sky was the colour of wine, with flashes of lighter and darker purple denoting truly odd cloud formations.
Vuldon and Tane marched over to the viewing platform, and Lan then steered the hobbling Fulcrom towards them. The panorama revealed a city that on one side was still cluttered with glorious architecture, and on the other a void where bridges and tall buildings and slate rooftops should have been.
Half of Villjamur had collapsed. They were lost for words. More and more stone toppled over amidst flashes of purple light.
‘That’s the mad cultist,’ Vuldon said.
‘We should have attempted to stop him,’ Tane muttered.
‘I doubt we’d have been much use,’ Vuldon replied. ‘We’d have been buried under there if we tried.’
‘Look,’ Lan said, pointing out the Astronomer’s Glass Tower, which, almost out of sight, was still standing in the half of the city that had not been wrecked.
A column of white light extended upwards, into the clouds, turning them into a textured whirlpool, and creating vast and weird streaks that extended for miles above the city.
‘Has the priest succeeded in whatever it was he was trying to do?’ Vuldon muttered.
‘Can we make our way there safely?’ Lan asked aloud.
Tane peered directly down, then across, assessing the potential for route. ‘Well, there appears to be absolutely no fighting anywhere near us. Perhaps that chap who’s ruined half of Villjamur has taken everyone with him.’
‘That’s a staggering death toll,’ Vuldon declared. Even he seemed shocked by the violence.
‘Ulryk,’ Fulcrom said. In the light of the day, he looked much better. ‘The priest is onto something we can barely understand. Given that this city is crippled, he’s the only one with a future mapped out.’