This was no time to be a hero. Under the multicoloured banners of the sanctuary city of Villjamur, under the reign of a new emperor, and amidst a bitter northerly wind reaching far through the knotted streets, something was about to start.
Seven human teenagers sauntered back and forth in front of a gate that permitted access to one of the highest levels of the city.
Sleet was whipping by in the channels between these old stone walls – buildings three or four storeys high, with fat timber frames and decorated with hanging baskets inhabited by little more than limp tundra flowers.
From his horse, Investigator Fulcrom could glean only so much about the movement of the youths: their first walk-by was purely to check out the guard situation, maybe gauge the soldiers’ temperament. A little tease. Those kids had done well to get this far, given the current political climate. In their baggy breeches and hooded wax coats, they moved with long, easy strides right past the military installation. They possessed every intention of creating a scene. At least, that was what the guards were meant to think.
But Investigator Fulcrom, a brown-skinned rumel in his younger years, knew better. He’d seen this kind of thing before, from his casual dealings with the underworld – an advantage that these simple guardsmen did not possess. No, these youths were decoys – they didn’t have the guts to challenge the guards outright. Sure, they laughed and whistled and threw around tentative insults and crude hand-slang gestures; but this wasn’t the real deal, not by a long shot.
So if they’re not looking for a fight, what’re they up to?
About a dozen armed men and women sporting the crimson and grey colours of the city guard peered on glumly from behind the bars of the massive rust-caked gate. Fulcrom suspected they were probably annoyed to be out in this weather as much as being faced with these young piss-takers.
Another group of kids loitered by the massive, arched door belonging to a disused tavern. Are these connected with the main display? In the shadows they chattered and pointed at a piece of parchment nailed to the wood. Fulcrom knew they were looking at the artwork of MythMaker, an unknown figure who would occasionally leave his hand-drawn stories about the city. It was rare to see one of the sketches here – rare, in fact, to see them much at all these days. The parchments were usually left by schools, or in places where children would loiter, and Fulcrom wondered for a brief moment if it may or may not have anything to do with the events about to transpire.
Back to the main show: a second taunting walk-by from the youths still yielded no response from the soldiers.
Cobbled streets weren’t as dangerous to traverse these days, not with the cultist water technique imported all the way from Villiren to keep the ice at bay, so the kids strolled safely in a line, right before the assembled military.
A shadow flickered, followed by a sharp ripple of wind: a garuda skimmed the air overhead, making its presence known. Fulcrom tracked the garuda as it flew between the spires that defined Villjamur. A few of the older structures here were latticed with ladders and scaffolding, bearing workmen and cultists as they continued the Emperor’s massive programme of regeneration. Either side of Fulcrom, the streets weren’t at all packed – merely a few of the usual well-to-do citizens that you found about the fifth level of the city, trudging from store to store. Faded shop facades indicated tools or gemstones or bistros, and not for the first time Fulcrom noticed a couple of those new private soldiers of the Shelby Corporation stationed as guards. Beyond, cobbled lanes arced upwards, winding and twisting like slick-stone veins into the heart of Balmacara, the dark fortress that was the Imperial residence. Suddenly the bird sentry banked upwards, drifting into the haze, then scrambled to a standstill on one of the overhead bridges, where it stared down ominously across the scene.
Fulcrom inched his horse forwards, closing the distance. He should have been at the office by now. He had dozens of high-profile burglaries to be investigating, but he wanted to see how this played out, and his tail swished with anticipation. He was fifty years old – remarkably young by Inquisition standards – but he could tell a ruse when he saw one. Pity the guards can’t . . . How useless can they get?
He would have intervened, but it would be bad etiquette. In the moment’s pause he absent-mindedly wiped the excess mud from his boots, then rearranged his crimson robe.
A greater density of people now began to mill about around him, drifting forwards, curious about the show. Women in drab shawls, men hunched in furs and wax raincoats, the dozens soon became a hundred: here was the promise of something to break the monotony of everyday life in Villjamur. Citizens were currently experiencing lockdown conditions – the Council was in its regular session, and virtually no one was allowed near the upper levels, the forbidden zone lying beyond the guarded gate.
The third walk-by now, and all laughter had faded as the youths began aggressively throwing rocks at the guards. The stones pinged off the bars, or slapped against the wall to one side.
‘Get the fuck away, brats,’ a veteran guard growled. Stubbled and heavily built, he looked like he knew his way around a fight. The man unsheathed his sword with a zing.
One of the youths strutted forwards, took a wide-legged stance and beckoned the guard forward, much to the entertainment of his mates.
There followed a clank clank clank of a mechanism; the gate started to lift and the youths inched away, peering at each other, then around the streets. Fulcrom followed their gazes, but could see nothing out of the ordinary. They were just looking for escape routes.
So where is it, when’s it coming?
The guard grabbed the youth who was beckoning him by his collar, slammed him into the ground and pointed the tip of his blade at the kid’s throat. In all the commotion, Fulcrom couldn’t hear what was being said, just continued to followed the anxious glances of the others. A woman from the crowd screamed for the guard to leave the kid alone.
Suddenly, from two streets away, four figures garbed in dark clothing and riding black horses, burst through the bad weather and, with immense speed, approached the gate. The one at the front swung his sword and decapitated the veteran guard – blood spurted across the cobbles, his head flopped uselessly to one side, the kid in his grasp shrieked in disgust. The other youths made their escape.
The four riders, their faces obscured by black scarves, collided with three guards, knocking them aside, then spilled through the gate. Another soldier was trampled, another was driven back into the wall with a scream, and then the others were hurled aside by a violent purple light that burnt at their flesh.
The crowd were in hysterics.
Cultists? Fulcrom pulled up his crossbow, loaded it, and nudged his white mare in an arc across the wide street, trying to make his way through the fleeing masses.
He spotted a gap – and moved in pursuit of the riders, with two city guards moving in to flank him. The winter winds whipped across his face.
Like hammers on anvils, hooves pounded on the cobbles.
A trail of seven horses curved upwards through the high-walled streets and galloped through a thronging iren. Screaming people lurched aside while traders cursed as their cheap wares were scattered across the ground. Bones of the unfortunate were crunched into stone, but Fulcrom ignored this and focused on plunging through the horse-made gaps in the crowd, his heart racing. These invaders were quick and skilled and working those horses with purpose. They know where they’re going, Fulcrom thought. This has been well planned.
As the skies above cleared the sun cast its amber haze across the buildings. The pursuit moved ever upwards, carving through the higher levels of Villjamur, away from the iren, through narrow side streets, under flamboyant balcony gardens, and past lichen- blighted statues. More military riders drifted in alongside Fulcrom, and warning bells resonated in the distance. Fulcrom shouted directions in the hope that the military would follow, but they didn’t – they were young and unskilled riders, almost injuring their horses as they pushed them around dangerously tight corners.
Up ahead, one of the insurgents suddenly turned around and, from some handheld device, launched back two purple bolts of energy. Fulcrom yanked his mare out of the way. The soldier to Fulcrom’s left had his arm burned; another’s horse crumpled under him when her leg was shredded by the light. Fulcrom pushed aside his fear: whoever they were, they needed stopping.
Across another plaza, the chase continued: wealthy women shrieked, and their husbands stood blinking dumbly in the light as their perfect morning was upset by the hubbub.
‘Out the fucking way!’ Fulcrom yelled, using his tail for balance now. Leaving the military riders behind, he nearly slipped off his saddle when his horse lurched to the left to avoid colliding with two basket-carrying women. For a moment he thought he had lost the four marauders, until he glimpsed them up ahead. They were moving now at a much slower pace, heading across a thin bridge.
He headed after them holding his breath; this wasn’t a pathway meant for horses. It was narrow and crumbling and stretched from one platform to another like some rickety plank. The cityscape spread open below him, the glorious spires and slick slate roofs, the baroque architecture, the massive structures of legend. If he fell from his horse he would die. His horse tentatively plodded along to the other side before he nudged it into a gallop again, on to precarious terrain where the cultist water treatments had begun to wear off. By now Fulcrom had worked out where the riders were heading: the Jorsalir Bell Spire. Where the Council was said to be in session.
The criminal gang had dismounted by a row of expensive terraced cottages, which were used for retired military leaders, great whitewashed structures with winter hanging baskets and thatched roofing. Another road sloped up and down along a high viewing platform that overlooked the tundra beyond.
Fulcrom slid off his mare and approached. The figures were hooded, garbed in similar featureless dark outfits.
Fulcrom drew his sword. ‘Strangers, state your business.’ His voice seemed lost in the city’s haze.
‘I’d stay away from here if I were you, brother.’ Fulcrom couldn’t discern who spoke due to the scarves protecting their faces. The accent was bass but curious – definitely affected by some distant island.
The speaker seemed to be at the centre of this group; he didn’t turn around.
‘What’ve you got there?’ Fulcrom approached closer and pointed to the sack in which the man who had spoken was rummaging.
The figure turned around and commanded, ‘Brother, I have warned you – keep back.’
A thought struck Fulcrom: they had not yet killed him, or tried to, and he knew there was little he could do alone against so many if they tried. These people want someone to witness this.
‘On behalf of the Inquisition, I demand you halt and show your faces,’ Fulcrom ordered. He withdrew his gold, crucible-stamped medallion from beneath his robe.
‘And how exactly are you going stop us?’ The figure reached into his pocket and flicked an item that landed at Fulcrom’s feet, some coin perhaps, but it disappeared instantly. Fulcrom instinctively leapt back, but nothing happened. As he walked forward he collided with something . . . invisible. He spread his hands, testing the unseen force between him and the stranger, who was now laughing behind the scarf.
All Fulcrom could do was watch. Infuriated, he slammed the heel of his fist against the force, but again nothing happened.
‘Your name?’ Fulcrom demanded. He tried using his sword to strike the shield around him – the physical absence – but it merely bounced off the nothing that was between him and his target.
A moment later and he watched the group run across the bridge in a neat line with sacks tied back over their shoulders, their heads held low. They sauntered across the wide road between the crenellated walls towards the Bell Spire, which looked so high it threatened to puncture the clouds. Guards, stationed there today, approached them, but Fulcrom saw the assailants use the same trick they had on him, a disc to the guards’ feet, and then they, too, were caged by an impassable force.
So they weren’t killed either – what does this group want everyone else to see?
The group moved towards a huddle of Jorsalir priests, who tottered sheepishly away, and the gang then began to climb one of the walls with frightening agility, probably using relics to aid them. Two garudas flapped in to intercept them, but flashes of purple light punctuated their wings so badly that they plummeted out of the sky.
All Fulcrom could do was watch. He couldn’t be certain, but it appeared as if the would-be terrorists were leaving devices all around the base of the thick, conical spire. Frustrated, Fulcrom walked along the edge of his barrier, still prodding it to test for weakness in that direction, but he could only go backwards, and there was no other route to the Bell Spire that way. He rested his hands on the invisible barricade and gazed helplessly across to the brigands, his breath clouding before his eyes.
The figures climbed down from the spire, leaping near the base – and almost floating back to the cobbles. They stepped up on the edge of the crenellations, spread some rigid- looking rain capes and leapt down to drift across the sleet-filled cityscape with the grace of garudas.
A moment later and the base of the Bell Spire exploded; bricks scattered like startled birds, slamming into the surrounding structures and rattling onto roads. A thunderous crack like the wrath of Bohr split the bridge first, sending it buckling in on itself and crumbling down onto the level below. The spire leaned to one side, groaning, and eventually it twisted in upon itself, as masonry dust clouded up around.
The ruins collapsed down across Villjamur. Block and brick slid into this fresh abyss, and people screamed from every direction as dozens of bodies fell from the site of the Jorsalir monastery, and Fulcrom lost sight of them a hundred feet below. For a good minute he stared helplessly, refusing to believe that all he could do was watch. People swarmed down below, in hysterics. He wondered how many councillors had been in that building.
Fulcrom turned to head back the way he came and the only way he could go, to try to reach the crisis down below, but he noticed many of the nearby banners had been somehow replaced whilst he was facing the devastation. There were no crests here any more, no flowers, no depictions of great creatures, no displays of wealth.
Only black rags rippled in this chilling wind.