A hamlet with a population of about a hundred suddenly found itself swelling in numbers – thousands were now travelling through on its narrow mud road, on foot or horseback or bundled up in blankets in the carts.
Sleet fell strangely by the coast. The warmer onshore breeze forced it horizontally, and it was loaded with a salty tang, drenching the citizens who, wrapped in wax cloaks, shawls or furs, tromped the already muddy road into a quagmire. A village of two streets, or what approximated to streets, had been silently besieged. Locals peered out of their doors, either outraged or confused. Seagulls screamed along the beach and, in the distance, the sea fizzed its way onto the sands.
Late afternoon, and the sun suddenly revealed itself, creating rainbows – in one direction, that was. In the other lay the crippled ruins of Villjamur, and the landmass above it, which Fulcrom still couldn’t believe could actually hang there – in the sky – without any columns or chains holding it up. Every time he saw a piece of the city fall, and a dust plume rise, he prayed – though he was not a religious man – that Lan and Vuldon would be all right.
‘What’s the plan now?’ Tane asked.
A good question, that, Fulcrom thought.
Someone had recognized him as an investigator, and even though he claimed he no longer worked for the Inquisition, he found that word instantly spread to dozens of people, and they looked to him for leadership.
The cloaked figure to one side, Frater Mercury, was hidden from view. Fulcrom didn’t want any suspicion drawn to the figure. He needed to interview the man – if that was indeed possible – to find out what his purpose was. But not yet – not until he had found Lan.
He stood by the entrance to the village on an upturned crate, and scanned the masses for Vuldon: he would tower above these people by a good foot, but Fulcrom saw only the dreary faces of those who had lost their homes or loved ones.
And they came in vast numbers, crying or shivering or simply expressionless.
He stood there for a good hour, his body aching from the bruises. He was aware of a wide open wound on his thigh, conscious that it could become infected, but there were no medical supplies here, no cultists. Frater Mercury, possibly upon seeing the pain in Fulcrom’s expression, moved nearer, his weird half-face showing beneath his hood. Those eyes seemed ageless. He hobbled towards Fulcrom’s leg, and some connection transmitted between their minds, something Fulcrom was barely aware of. Frater Mercury slowly leant down and with a whip of his finger split the material above Fulcrom’s thigh, exposing the crippled flesh to the air. Within a minute, the newcomer’s fingers were at work within his flesh, and they moved at lightning speed. Using no materials other than the thick rumel skin, Frater Mercury patched up Fulcrom’s thigh – and then rested a hot palm to the surface, cauterizing the wound, but Fulcrom felt no pain. After the act, the hand withdrew, leaving the flesh as good as new.
‘That’s a miracle,’ Fulcrom said, his breath clouding the air.
Without saying a word, Frater Mercury backed off and resumed his motionless stance.
‘Tane,’ Fulcrom said, ‘would you head out there to see if you can spot Lan?’
‘Indeed,’ he replied, and went into the throng.
‘There’s no need!’ shouted a voice. Tane turned back to see Lan file in alongside him.
Fulcrom stepped down from his crate. He overcompensated, expecting some signs of strain in his leg, and immediately slipped in the mud, falling to one knee when that didn’t happen. Lan came over to him with a wry smile. ‘It’s a bit early for a proposal don’t you think?’
She lifted him up and pulled herself in to embrace him. Fulcrom’s heart thumped. He didn’t want to let her go – not any more. Her cheeks were cold, and she wasn’t wearing any outer layers – just her stained Knights uniform. Tane had found a shawl and placed it on Lan’s shoulders, and Fulcrom nodded his thanks to him. They must have been there for a good minute before anyone spoke.
‘Where’s Vuldon?’ Tane asked.
Lan bowed her head and didn’t reply.
‘Is he still there?’ Tane pressed.
‘Later,’ Fulcrom cautioned, and held up his hand.
They all turned to regard the explosion in the distance, too late to see whatever blast caused the remains of Villjamur to turn to fire. Clouds had recently drifted away from the city, exposing the landmass above in its full glory.
It was something quite macabre, a ragged floating island of black spires, around which creatures were fluttering – he imagined them to be immense.
‘The gods help us. That floating fortification – it’s moved, I swear. It’s simply so large and moving so slowly, I haven’t noticed until now, but its position has moved.’
Frater Mercury began pulling Fulcrom’s sleeve, and he untangled himself from Lan.
Gods can’t help. Maybe I can. We need to talk. The words seemed planted in his head. Fulcrom nodded. ‘Come on.’
They walked to one of the nearest houses, a one-storey wooden shack painted bright green. There was a measly excuse for a front garden, full of dead or decaying flowers, and a small porch. Fulcrom marched them all up the steps and banged on the door.
There was no answer, so Lan moved in and kicked it open. A wiry looking fisherman stood up from his table and issued expletives.
‘Villjamur Inquisition,’ Fulcrom announced, and gestured for him to get back. The man meekly stood aside and they commandeered the table. Frater Mercury followed them in.
The room was basic: a round table, a few wooden chairs, landscape paintings, an old iron-framed mirror and a rust-encrusted stove.
Sitting down carefully, Lan looked at them, meeting Tane’s searching gaze with a sad frown, ‘Vuldon’s dead.’
‘Impossible,’ Fulcrom gasped.
Lan nodded. ‘He died saving a family. We were on our way out. I couldn’t do anything.’ Her gaze fell to the table.
Fulcrom placed a hand on her arm. ‘It’s OK, we can talk about it later.’
Tane remained silent and aghast.
‘Death is not always the end,’ Frater Mercury spoke suddenly. His accent was strained, his words pronounced slowly and clearly as if reading the words from some distant tapestry. ‘His bodily pieces. Bring them. I repair.’
‘Who and what are you?’ Fulcrom asked. ‘Why did the priest bring you here, and where is he?’
‘Ulryk,’ Fulcrom said.
There was the flicker of expression on Frater Mercury’s face. ‘You have no . . .’ idea who I am, the voice continued in Fulcrom’s head. Could Lan hear too? Her expression indicated this was the case.
Villjamur, my word she has grown. She was a village like this when I left. Ulryk has brought me back to this realm safely. He has been consigned to the book – a momentary cost. You must take me away from this place. The Policharos will move.
The Policharos in the sky. It will move. It will come for these people. It will eradicate them, and you. But not me, no – I had hoped to re-enter this Archipelago at a more suitable location. Of all the Wayfarer Towers, the priest chose the one in Villjamur where, it seems, plans were already afoot to invade.
‘Pretty ungrateful towards a man who summoned you.’
I haven’t the patience! The mirror on the wall shattered, everyone looked at each other, afraid. Take me to your elders.
‘We have no elders. If you mean superiors, there are none – the city was destroyed. For all I know, the Emperor and the Council with it.’
There are movements in the east. Take me there.
‘We know little about that,’ Lan said. ‘There was a war near Villiren, that’s what was said in People’s Observer – and where most of the military have been sent.’
Yes. Your people were successful. And have met others who can help – people who worship me. They seek an alliance. Your former ruler is alive.
No, the woman.
‘Rika . . .’ Fulcrom said. ‘This changes everything.’
Yes. We all must move now.
‘Look,’ Fulcrom replied, ‘I’m sure in your world you’re rather important. But there are a few thousand people on the open road, many of whom are likely to die tonight. If we go east, then they’re coming too. We can’t leave them here, not at the mercy of that thing in the sky. I’m sure that tens of thousands of lives might not mean a lot to you, but they’ve nothing else.’
Frater Mercury looked repeatedly, and rapidly, from Lan to Fulcrom, Fulcrom to Lan.
If I must . . .
They lined up under a darkening sky on the porch to the hut. Fulcrom’s gaze fixed on Frater Mercury’s weird movements as he zigzagged through the crowd in desperate lurches, until he found the centre.
‘What’s he going to do?’ Lan asked, holding Fulcrom’s arm tightly.
‘I have absolutely no idea,’ Fulcrom replied.
Frater Mercury began wailing in some bizarre tones, until the ground began to shake. Fulcrom gripped the railing of the porch with one hand, and Tane stepped down to get a little closer.
There were terrified screams from the people huddled in the village centre as the muddied road on which they had travelled started to rise. A few jumped off hysterically, while others held on to each other. A segment of the very earth began to rise in the centre. Then came the sound of snapping planks: two of the wooden houses began to unbuckle themselves and collapse inwardly in a swirl of purple light, their structures disassembling, tumbling haphazardly, and then reassembling as circular constructs placed beneath the raised wedge of earth.
‘Wheels,’ Fulcrom gasped. ‘He’s making wheels to move that segment of earth.’
They watched in awe as an immense, basic carriage was formed from the elements: it was at least fifty feet wide, this mountain of mud and grass, and carried the better part of a hundred people – though it could easily carry more.
Fulcrom could see the obviousness of this construct: huge numbers of people could be transported from the city’s limits, away from the – What did he call it? – the Policharos. Well, they could if this ungainly chariot could be moved.
Another bank of earth rose ten feet up. Wooden wheels were formed once again beneath, and then another, until four of them – the entire length of the street through this village – lined up, one behind the other.
‘How are they going to move?’ Lan asked.
A few moments later, her answer came. In the brouhaha, Fulcrom had lost sight of Frater Mercury, but his vision was drawn to a group of horses – whose riders were pulled off and into the mud with a thud. The animals – four in all – were guided nearer the carriages, and stood alongside a wheel, their heights being roughly equal.
Then a hideous miracle: the beasts, in a haze of purple light, began to shudder and contort, growing in size – monstrously so. Bulbous and with abnormal musculature, the four horses – one black and three greys – loomed above what was left of the village.
It didn’t take a genius to work out what would happen next.
Fulcrom leaned down to Tane: ‘Get those people out of the way.’
Tane nodded and ran into action, bundling men, women and children away from the huge hooves, which kicked and stomped aggressively. Screams followed, as a handful of the unfortunate were pressed deep into the mud. People wanted to both leave and stay – they saw the sense of these earthly carriages, but were in fear of their lives. There was a magic at work now that they didn’t comprehend – and neither did Fulcrom. He seldom thought of the word magic, especially after having worked with cultists, but what he had witnessed here was so . . . inexplicable, so unnatural, that there was no other term suitable.
Frater Mercury lunged into view and spoke into Fulcrom’s head. Here is our transportation. I estimate we can take two thousand.
‘It’s not enough,’ Fulcrom said. Lan looked at him. ‘We need to take everyone,’ he continued, ‘or there’s no point.’
It seemed no effort to Frater Mercury, who tromped off into the masses once again, and then a boy came and stood before Fulcrom, a scruffy kid who wasn’t young, but not quite a man either.
‘Can I help you?’ Fulcrom asked.
The boy looked wearily to Lan. ‘Is she gonna arrest me if I say I’m an anarchist?’
Fulcrom shrugged. ‘Why don’t you ask her?’
‘Are you?’ the kid said.
‘I’m busy,’ Lan smiled. ‘What do you want?’
‘Name’s Caley,’ the boy replied. ‘You both look like you’re the authority here.’
Fulcrom contemplated the words, but didn’t disagree with the sentiment. No one else had come up with any solutions.
‘I came from Balmacara tonight,’ the boy said. ‘I was with Shalev. I was with her when she stabbed the Emperor, too. I just needed to tell someone important.’
A crowd had gathered behind him, curious as to his words. The boy turned and repeated the statements, describing the evening’s actions of the anarchists, and a murmur rippled through the crowd.
What was the priority? Fulcrom wondered. Getting these people to safety.
‘You want to make yourself useful, Caley, or are you enjoying the power of a little fame?’
Caley turned and spat on the floor. ‘I don’t enjoy power.’
‘Good. Then if you know of any of your cronies in the anarchists, round them up. Any military personnel, point them to me. You’ve good networks: get them doing something beneficial, and spread word that we are all refugees now. Villjamur is no more and we are to evacuate the area. What’s more, that object in the sky is going to eradicate us if we do not flee. We can’t return.’
‘You expect us all to walk across the fucking ice?’ the kid asked.
‘No,’ Fulcrom replied, regarding the crowds. ‘No, that would be suicide. Here’s what’s going to happen.’
Ten horses, as tall as city spires, hauled gargantuan platforms across the tundra and through the night. When each hoof connected to the ground, it created a bass groan that shook everyone on board, which meant they weren’t going to get much in the way of sleep tonight, but that was a small price to pay to utilize this most absurd form of transportation.
Fulcrom and Lan huddled together at the front of one such contraption, a wax blanket draped across them both. They shivered, and were holding each other for warmth as much as comfort. The wind pummelled their faces, but at least there was no snow tonight. Open skies and starlight brought a deadly chill. Frater Mercury was perched with arms folded atop of their immense horse, which led the others through the wilderness. Tane lingered nearby, turning back to stare at the city with sharp eyes.
Many miles behind, Villjamur was burning.
They travelled for hours, until a dim-lit haze indicated a new day. Forests stood dark and majestic across the hillside, while large tracts of agricultural land, divided by stone walls, boxed up the landscape.
Lan woke up, and he kissed her forehead.
‘I was hoping to leave the city in milder circumstances,’ he whispered to her.
‘We’re together,’ she replied, groggily. ‘We’re both safe. That’s enough.’
‘But for how long?’ Fulcrom wondered. ‘How did we find ourselves in the centre of all this?’
‘Because we cared,’ Lan offered. ‘Anyone who gives a shit about people will find themselves in the thick of it. People who don’t just sit back and complain while the world messes with them.’
‘You’re a harsh girl tonight,’ he joked.
Lan didn’t reply, merely curled up a little more. He put his arm around her and, as he contemplated their future, his mind desired facts to analyse once again. He wanted to ask about Vuldon, too, about what she had seen at the end. He wondered what happened to Ulryk on the Astronomer’s Glass Tower. There were so many questions that needed answering.