Every minute brought more casualties and collapsed structures, until there seemed nothing left in their path that could possibly prevent them. Was Dartun yet satisfied?
Numb and broken, the remnants of the Order of the Equinox were marched in front of Dartun, through narrow streets, passing places that had not yet been wrecked by his savagery. Verain didn’t care any more. She just wanted it to end.
Her legs ached, and she had no energy left, but somehow she found herself trudging ever upwards. Each of them slipped at least twice on the ice, falling face-first or flat on their backs. Images from the otherworld flashed into her mind randomly, though she didn’t understand why, and she looked across at the members of her order not knowing who any of them were. Was such forgetfulness generated from her exhaustion? In the distance she could hear the movements of people, of skirmishes in the shadows, but she didn’t have the energy to wonder what they were.
Like the undead creatures that Dartun had once bred with technology, she shambled without purpose.
Level after level, street by street, they eventually reached the platform before – What was this? – before Balmacara, a vast residence. Bodies littered the stone platform, their shadows cast long by the sun.
‘Yes,’ Dartun said. ‘Yes, this will do nicely.’
‘For what?’ someone said. She didn’t know who spoke, nor did she recognize the voice.
Dartun began to hunch and mutter something, not to himself, to someone else – but there was no one else but the members of the Equinox present. Suddenly he ran to one of the others and grabbed the man’s throat: the cultist seemed too exhausted to struggle against Dartun’s grip, pawing meekly at his wrist.
Dartun pressed his fingers into the man’s neck, stilling him, and he peeled back the man’s skin, ripping it from his head. Something weirdly ornate was in its place – a metallic object the shape of a head, with purple lighting webbing intricately along the surface. Dartun continued ripping the skin from the man’s torso – clumps of flesh flopped uselessly to the ground, with a black liquid – not blood – pooling by his feet. Dartun did the same to all of them in turn, ripping them open one by one and discarding their skin and flesh in a thoroughly businesslike manner.
He arranged these metallic forms in a circle, like a primitive henge, and occasionally light flickered between them.
Finally, he came to Verain. She didn’t cry, didn’t scream, even though she knew what was coming.
‘So is this all we were to you?’ she breathed. ‘Some fucked up containers for these . . . whatever they are?’
Dartun seemed to recognize something within her eyes then, a connection to his former self; but it was quickly gone, replaced by the cold, calm gaze he’d had since returning through the gates: ‘You were once something, Verain, but we all have a greater purpose in life.’
‘You sold your soul in that otherworld. I don’t know what you did, but just finish it now.’
‘I did love you,’ Dartun said. ‘I hope you realize. You would have been killed there anyway. I saved all of you – I gave each of you life, for just a little longer.’
Verain grunted her disapproval. ‘Love – and what would you know about that?’
‘I understand,’ Dartun continued, ‘that love quite often involves a little sacrifice.’
The last things she saw: his advancing form, his hands raised to her face, her head tipping back and blissful, blissful relief . . .
‘What the fuck was that?’ Vuldon demanded. The Knights paused at the foot of the Astronomer’s Glass Tower, and stared back up towards Balmacara.
A thick column of purple light, as wide as the Imperial residence itself, extended up towards the sky and drove thunderously into the cloud base. A vortex formed, spiralling slowly, whipping up debris and loose stone, whirling it upwards, crackling into the sky.
There came the sound of something ripping – a tearing through the fabric of the world. A form seemed to present itself just the other side of the lowest clouds – a dark bruise in the sky. The tip of it came into view.
‘You are shitting me,’ Vuldon gasped.
The darkness eclipsed the sky, bringing a shadow over the entirety of Villjamur.
A dark rock face, which stretched beyond the city limits, lowered itself slowly, and soon it came so close it clipped the top fortifications on the Imperial residence. Then it was clear this was something more: not so much a floating island, but a discernible city of sorts, with weirdly proportioned structures and baroque architecture.
Caley was the first one to break free from the column of light, his arms and legs windmilling as he careened down the streets of the city. He thumped into the angle of a wall and, stunned, he looked back to see if the others had made it – they hadn’t. Their bodies were floating clockwise, caught in the vortex suction of the light.
Caley was helpless. His brothers and sisters were destined to die, and all he could do was watch – and, yes, Shalev was in there too. He was all that was left from the mission to kill Urtica. He alone possessed the story.
Caley would tell no one of Shalev’s breakdown and savagery in Balmacara. The Emperor was dead, that was all that mattered – and only he was present. He would tell all who listened how Shalev killed Urtica. He would make sure her name went down in legend.
Swallowing back emotion, he turned once again and charged through the streets.
A few people looked on idiotically and he screamed for them to get away. Many of them listened, a few were too numbed by the sight and he ploughed into them, knocking them sideways.
Soldiers paused from combat with Cavesiders as, in unison, the remaining populace craned their necks to watch the immense structure lower itself over Villjamur.
Lan scrambled up to the top of the Astronomer’s Glass Tower, breathless as she crested the lip of the roof. She peered about and saw Ulryk hunched in the middle – no, that isn’t him. This wasn’t right. Ulryk wasn’t wearing a dark-blue cloak with a hood, nor did he stoop as badly as this figure.
‘Hello?’ Lan offered, but the figure remained with its back to her. She approached and could see the books on the floor by the stranger’s feet. Where was Ulryk then?
When she was just a few feet away, she paused – the figure reeked of some industrial odour. Its movements were minute and eccentric. The thing turned its head and she gasped. It reared up in front of her, several feet tall, with a face that was half bone and half metal, and two human eyes regarding her.
‘Who are you?’ Lan asked. ‘Did Ulryk – did he summon you?’
The figure cocked its head as if remembering how to speak. ‘I am . . . Frater Mercury.’ His voice was unnaturally soft and gentle, which surprised her. She was entranced by his gaze and stepped closer. Beneath his hood, the left side of his face was a silver plate, with tiny gemstones set inside, and the other half wasn’t quite bare skull, but the skin was adhering so tightly it might well have been.
Frater Mercury grimaced at her words and indicated the books on the floor.
‘I don’t understand,’ Lan replied. Then, ‘He spoke of you like you were a god – are you one?’
‘There is no god,’ Frater Mercury replied. ‘There is only what I constructed.’ The immense floating structure in the sky lowered itself, Frater Mercury held up his hand. ‘We must flee before this – ’ he said a word she didn’t understand ‘ – fills the city with abominations.’
‘I was told to take Ulryk down, where a group of us are evacuating the city.’
‘I need time to prepare. This was not meant to happen with such speed.’ His weird hybrid face fiercely regarded the presence in the sky. Spires crumbled and objects – creatures – flapped and arced down in ragged patterns of slow flight.
‘OK, we’ll get you out.’ If this was some saviour of the world, Lan wasn’t terribly impressed. She bent down to collect Ulryk’s books and slipped them in the discarded satchel. ‘Can you climb down?’
Frater Mercury gave something that was close to a laugh. He stepped towards her, touched her shoulder, and—
—they appeared on the ground by the base of the tower.
‘Fuck did you come from?’ Vuldon said. Fulcrom slowly turned, a look of astonishment on his face, and Lan moved to his side. She explained who the newcomer was, and that Ulryk had vanished. Tane padded around sniffing at Frater Mercury, while Vuldon stepped closer to him. No one quite knew what to make of the figure. Even Lan expected something more impressive, after all, she had gone to all that trouble to help Ulryk get The Book of Transformations to summon this supposed saviour.
Nearby houses collapsed. Screaming increased tenfold. Columns of light began drifting down from the sky structure, bringing with them more of the malformed creatures.
‘We should go,’ Frater Mercury declared.
‘No,’ Vuldon said.
‘Come on,’ Tane stressed. ‘We need to clear out of here before the city is destroyed.’
‘I have been made to help people survive,’ Vuldon replied calmly. ‘While there are people that need helping, I just can’t go anywhere.’
‘He’s right,’ Lan replied, and Fulcrom gave her a look of despair. ‘What? He is. I know we said we’d escape, but how could you honestly go with all of this on your conscience?’
‘This is rubbish,’ Tane declared.
‘And I’d just hold you up,’ Fulcrom said.
‘Tell you what – Fulcrom, you get this friend of Ulryk’s out of the city.’
‘OK,’ the rumel said. ‘Ulryk thought he had powers that would help . . . so I guess we’ll see if that holds true. But, Lan, are you sure this is right?’
Lan nodded. It was difficult to explain to anyone, how being a Knight had given her a purpose in life she had never felt before.
‘There’s a hamlet a half a mile towards the coast,’ Vuldon said. ‘Villreet. We’ll meet up there when we make it out.’ He gave precise directions to the others, but Fulcrom knew the route well.
Lan ran up to Fulcrom and she kissed his lips softly, before their foreheads touched and she closed her eyes. Eventually she pulled away and handed him the satchel with Ulryk’s books.
Lan watched Fulcrom leave with Frater Mercury, who marched with an awkward, mechanical gait. Tane lingered there for a moment, then he said, ‘They’ll need looking after too’, and went after them.
‘Selfish fuckwit,’ Vuldon said, but Lan was glad he was by their side.
Vuldon and Lan saved lives at random. There was no strategy, no plan of action other than to help with a mass evacuation. There were tunnels at hand, and well-known routes, and Vuldon and Lan tried to steer as many citizens out of the city before these passageways all collapsed.
People were running in all directions. Dust clouds from wrecked buildings drifted downwind, adding to the confusion. Orders were barked out, and occasionally soldiers attempted to establish some kind of order. People were aghast as they watched bridges fall from the sky. Debris clattered and caught the wind.
Someone had the ingenuity to be ringing bells by the entrance to escape tunnels, guiding citizens through the dust.
‘Where are the children?’ Lan asked. ‘I’ve only seen adults up here.’
‘They’re hopefully already down below,’ Vuldon said. ‘If my plan worked and the priest was right.’
Caley suddenly wanted to be a kid again. He wanted to be near his family, listening to stories or being cuddled by his aunt or whatever – anything other than being out here, in this chaos. The anarchist networks were probably shattered – or, at least, he couldn’t find anyone he knew.
He stopped still, as the panic flourished, and the thing in the sky started dismantling Villjamur. He came across one of the old information boards, where an old copy of MythMaker was still nailed up, and he looked at the comforting pictures, never quite knowing the full story. Suddenly another kid ran up to him, a very young blonde-haired girl. ‘Hey, that’s not the latest – other kids are saying there’s more nailed to the tavern round the corner, and it’s something everyone has to see urgently, but I’m . . . too scared to go there on my own. My folks . . . I don’t know where they are.’
Caley was about to make a comment about how posh she sounded, when something exploded nearby. It was shortly followed by the presence of a hideous-looking half-beast, half-human form, with two horns. People began screaming as it lashed out at them.
‘I’ll go with you,’ Caley said. Sister. He took the girl’s hand and steered her along the street. They rounded the corner and at the end of an abandoned plaza was the tavern, and the door to the building did indeed seem to hold a nailed piece of parchment.
With the wind gusting behind, Caley and the girl focused on the flapping instalment of MythMaker.
‘Can you read?’ Caley asked.
The girl nodded and began reciting the story. Just then, she began to go into some weird trance. She breathed one word over and over again – ‘Underground’. Caley looked at the pictures and saw some weird symbols sketched all over them.
The girl tugged his sleeve with remarkable force, ushering him back through the streets as if she knew the way on instinct – all the more strange considering she’d previously been afraid to cross the street on her own. There was an old stairwell by the corner of a butcher’s shop, and she kept on muttering, ‘Underground, underground . . .’
They descended into the darkness, where Caley could hear voices – not one or two, but hundreds, a bizarre unison he hadn’t heard since one of Shalev’s early gatherings.
‘Where is this place?’ Caley asked her, but the girl ignored him, all the time muttering the same word as the city rumbled overhead. Caley slid his way through some of the patches where water had frozen, and used his hands against the wall to guide himself. It was only in this relative calm that he realized how tired he was – he had been up all night, and through the dawn. Presently he came across a flow of children of all ages, holding torches. They were in one of the old escape tunnels, a vast arched route that reeked of sewage. A few adults were shouting things to control the kids, but no one seemed to pay much attention to them.
And the children were all individually whispering the word: ‘Underground . . .’
Caley released the girl’s hand and moved through the throng until he came across an adult. ‘Hey, mister, what the fuck is going on?’
‘Mind your language, runt,’ the man replied, pushing back his hood to reveal a bald head. ‘Anyway, I’ve no idea. Took my youngest to read one of them Mythica things—’
‘MythMaker,’ Caley corrected.
‘That’s right. And he just started going all strange and was insistent we followed him outside. I didn’t want to come, what with all the fighting, but he started screaming, so we came with him, and he brings us down here – and just look at all this!’ He gestured around to the tunnel, and the children who were all marching one way.
‘What do you mean?’ Lan demanded. ‘Did you have a plan?’
‘MythMaker,’ Vuldon replied.
‘What about it?’
‘It was my creation. I made it. Then the priest showed me a way of controlling people’s minds with certain symbols. I knew some kind of shit was kicking off – though I’d no idea it would be this bad – and wanted all the children to get somewhere safe, underground. So I asked Ulryk on how best to do that.’
Lan didn’t know quite how to respond. ‘And did it work?’
‘Can you see many children?’ Vuldon replied.
They continued through the streets, steering people away. Where buildings had collapsed, Vuldon and Lan inspected the wreckage for any survivors. Where possible, they lifted people out. And strange creatures were walking about the city now, things she could barely comprehend, with two, three, five, nine legs, or sets of eyes, or wings. They had been sent down from the dark structure up above, which now hovered over Villjamur.
The creatures began attacking civilians – until Vuldon and Lan stepped in.
Vuldon picked up some discarded military swords, threw one across to Lan. By the time she caught it, Vuldon was hacking into some of the beasts using nothing but raw strength and brutality. Lan joined him, using her powers to step through air as her advantage. She chopped at the creatures in their purple columns of light before they had a chance to reach the ground. Blood splattered over a wide area, while citizens ran for cover.
In the following hour, Lan and Vuldon moved their way down-city, from the third to the second level, towards the outer walls, slashing down incomprehensibly structured creatures, or guiding people to safety. In the distance, the higher levels of Villjamur were no more. The enormous sets of city gates were open; it looked as though they had been blown apart by some astounding force and, from where they were stood, she watched a tide of humans and rumels pour out towards the refugee camps, into the snow, some travelling on horseback but many on foot.
‘Vuldon,’ Lan said, in a sudden pause in combat, ‘what happens when we get out of the city? We’re going to have to steer everyone to safety again. There’ll be tens of thousands of people out there.’
Vuldon shrugged. ‘Worry about that when we get out.’
‘We should join them now,’ Lan said. ‘Look.’
More and more creatures were descending slowly upon the city, floating down to the streets where they would create carnage. Not even the exotic hybrids she had known in the circus could match these monsters for sheer macabre form. And there were more: it looked like rumels were among their ranks, red-skins, garbed in some alien military attire, and brandishing swords.
‘There’s hardly anyone left here to help,’ she said. ‘We should go.’
For a moment, Vuldon didn’t do anything, and she prodded him again: ‘I feel your need to help people as much as anyone, Vuldon. But seriously, there’s nothing left of this city. And the people outside will need our help.’
Sunlight streamed across the tide of people, and she moved towards them, ‘Come on, Vuldon.’
The huge Knight eventually turned to follow her, but then he shot to one side – a small family was backed up against a wall by a former jewellery shop, a woman and three children, while a bruise-coloured attacker with three legs and several arms reared above them. Bearing hideous, vicious rows of teeth, it must have been twice the height of a man. The woman brought her children closer to her, closed her eyes, obviously expecting that death was only seconds away. But Vuldon managed to get there in time: he shouldered the thing’s legs, rolling under it and bringing it down with a colossal groan.
Lan ran towards the family, and pleaded with them to follow her. As she steered them away from the conflict, she observed another beast emerging from a side street, running towards where Vuldon was struggling with the other one, rage set into its abnormal face, its maw wide.
The two creatures set upon Vuldon. The Knight lashed out but the creatures were quick. She couldn’t see much of the combat because of the blur of their thick legs, but Vuldon was now on the ground, face down, his blade to one side.
She gasped and stood still, the family moving on without her. One of the creatures reared up and then stomped on Vuldon: blood pooled beneath him. His form was battered. She moved to help him but stopped as more creatures stumbled to seize this moment: things with three, four, five legs and a thick and shimmering hide. They set upon him with their gaping mouths, rows of teeth picking at him and discarding chunks of flesh to one side. Lan felt sick, wanted to look away, but couldn’t. She backed off, knowing that she could not hope to help Vuldon.
In the following silence, she heard a foreign language – two redskin rumel soldiers were giving orders to the beasts.
Tears in her eyes, she ran after the family, and when she caught up with them it took her a while to realize that it was the mother who was now helping her. She placed her arm around Lan and steered her into a vast flow of people, all the while whispering words of encouragement.
They entered a wide street, the main thoroughfare that led out of the city. Between buildings three or four floors high, hundreds of people from all walks of life were marching with bundles of possessions in their arms, on their backs, or in little handcarts. The noise was intense, the mood morose. Behind them, the destruction of Villjamur was clear to see.
Not one bridge was still standing. At their ruined edges, figures were waving down for help. Some – incredibly – were jumping to escape the horrors behind them. People screamed intermittently. Bass groans occasionally marked the collapse of a distant structure. Dust clouds from fallen architecture were coughed out as if the city was on fire. And all the while, the presence in the sky continued to emit shafts of light that delivered savage creatures down to the higher levels.
Villjamur was no more.
But from the chaos, came order. Surprisingly, it was people she had seen fighting for the anarchists who were now helping out their former enemies. They were steering people, guiding and directing. Groups had been organized to remove rubble from the main avenue out of the city, and from around the gates of the city. The elderly were helped onto horseback, two per animal, then guided through the throng. Soldiers, too, had joined in with the anarchists, suddenly putting aside their official orders because of the new priorities.
A fight broke out between Shelby Corporation soldiers and the regular military. All she could glean from the situation was that the Shelby soldiers refused to help out with the evacuation since it was not in their remit, and they hadn’t the training to cope. They skulked out through the gates, protecting no one.
Lan passed them. She moved through the towering metal gates, burned and melted back around the edges, through enormous city walls, and she could smell the tang of the open countryside, the mud and the rank odours from the refugee camps. People were fleeing in one direction for the most part, along the sanctuary road, though smaller groups peeled off across the snow-covered tundra. And children – so many children were here.
Lan felt as though a part of her had vanished, that she no longer possessed the ability to aid these people. Lan turned towards the direction of Villreet, and prayed that Fulcrom was already there: he was her only hope for salvaging something from this wreckage.