City Of Ruin, page 1part #2 of Legends Of The Red Sun Series
CITY of RUIN
Legends of the Red Sun
MARK CHARAN NEWTON
For my mother, Kamal,
who never let her sons go without.
‘What would your good do if evil did not exist, and what would the earth look like if shadows disappeared from it?’
– Mikhail Bulgakov, The Master and Margarita
It entered the deep night, a spider reaching taller than a soldier. Street by street, the thing retched thick silk out of itself to cross the walls, using the fibrous substance to edge along improbable corners. Two, then four legs, to scale a wall – six, then eight, to get up on to the steps of a watchtower, and it finally located a fine view across the rooftops of Villiren. Fibrous skin tissue trapped pockets of air and, as tidal roars emerged from the distance, the creature exhaled.
A couple walked by, handy-sized enough to slaughter perhaps, their shoes tap-tapping below – but No, not them, not now, it reflected – and it slipped down off the edge of a stone stairway to stand horizontally, at a point where observation took on a new perspective. Snow fell sideways, gentle flecks at first, then something more acute, adding to the brooding intensity of the streets.
Within this umbra, the spider loitered.
As people sifted through the avenues and alleyways, it sensed them by an alteration in the chemistry of the air, in minute vibrations, so no matter where they were they couldn’t hide. With precision, the spider edged across to a firm overhang constructed from more recent, reliable stone. Webbing drooled again, then the creature lowered itself steadily, suspended by silk alone, twisting like a dancer in the wind. Lanes spread before it, grid-like across a plain of mathematical precision. The frequency of citizens passing below had fallen over the last hour; now only a handful of people remained out to brave the extreme cold.
It could almost sense their fear.
One of them had to be chosen – not too young, not too old. The world collapsed into angles and probabilities as the creature made a controlled spiral to the ground.
Scuttling into the darkness, the spider went in search of fresh meat.
That was a shitting scream all right, Haust thought. Unlike a banshee’s, this one was cut off so suddenly, it sounded almost as if it had been stolen from someone’s throat. Maybe a last gasp for help? His senses were provoked wildly, his fear grew extreme. Pterodettes flapped and squawked eccentrically as they carved circles through the night sky.
Fucking hell, last thing I bloody want on a night patrol. And here was the deal: he should have already been in bed – no, better still, in the officers’ mess, necking cheap vodka – but it was all the bloody commander’s fault, him and his public-security nonsense. Patrol the streets, maintain a sense of control and authority, reassure the populace, reduce their scepticism regarding the army. At the moment, Haust didn’t care if he was a Night Guard, therefore a man with advantageous augmentations – he was freezing his balls off, and no amount of augmentations could stop that.
Torches flared up the underside of snowflakes, conferring upon them the appearance of sparks from a blacksmith, an enhancement the snow didn’t need these days, not in an ice age when everyone was sick of it.
Few citizens were loitering at this hour. The last figure he’d seen was a hooded man picking at his teeth assiduously as he ran through the passageways. There was a deviant psychology generated from the regularity of these surrounding buildings, from their sheer modernity. Bland labyrinths. When you turned one corner you thought you had just come from there, and before long you began thinking you might never leave. Buildings in this particular neighbourhood had been constructed without much desire for aesthetics, and he was glad he didn’t live here.
Haust had only been a member of the Night Guard for a few months, but already thought himself a hero. Brought in from the Third Dragoons, Wolf Brigade, because of his flair with a bow, he now found himself in the Empire’s elite guard deployed far across the Boreal Archipelago, in a city preparing for a war. Tall, blond, handsome – he thought he was invincible. And why not? After all, being a Night Guard, you practically are. The albino commander had selected him above others, to fight alongside them. It was a promotion that set his career in stone, gave him recognition as one of the best. When he dreamed at night, voices came and told him that he was a chosen one. You can’t ignore facts like that.
He pulled his black cloak around him while tromping an exploratory path through the alleyways. He was somewhere about a mile from the Ancient Quarter, towards the centre of the city, which lay beyond the bad hotels and closed bistros. Bone archways from large whales were embedded in the cobbles, totems to the thousands of lost fishermen across the ages, and it was one of the few remaining features that suggested the ancient city had once been something grander. Also in that quarter rose three pairs of massive reptilian Onyx Wings, two hundred feet high and positioned in a triangle about a hundred yards apart on each side.
Another scream, but he couldn’t tell where exactly it had come from. Devil take me, this is a creepy place. Something moved above his head, maybe one of the garudas? Why was he so scared? He was in the military, for Bohr’s sake: a man meant to be at the top of his professional form.
Cats suddenly began to spill into the passageway, two, four, then countless numbers, all pouring through the streets like it was a mouthpiece, their claws tapping stone, occasionally lashing out at each other, before they spread out in exploratory arcs into the distance.
‘Anyone there?’ he offered.
Only his own voice came back at him, and he experienced something like vertigo – the very fabric of the streets changing in that same moment. He seemed an awfully long way away from a comforting bottle of vodka right now.
Around the next corner he spotted something and moved closer – it was a young body on the stone, severed down the centre, the ribcage split, organs spilling out into the night. Curiously, this body looked as if it had been dead for a while, certainly for longer than the gap in time between now and when Haust had heard the terrible scream. More detail he detected: the wound wasn’t clean, and there were loose hairs around the edge of it, fine but firm, and the length of a thumb. To one side lay a butcher’s meat cleaver, silvery and bloodied. The pu
Who’d done this?
A scuffle of boots on stone approached from somewhere behind him, and he immediately unsheathed his sabre. He couldn’t see anything yet, so he followed the symmetrical line of the buildings to one side. Stone crumbled from a corner – Fuck was that? – but there was still nothing evident. He stood perfectly still to gain the most from his heightened senses. A cat padded down an alley to one side, but a hundred paces away. There was the glint of a broken, discarded sword up ahead. One of the Jorsalir priests was chanting, his voice carried on the breeze from some distance way to the south of the city.
A blow to his head and Haust blacked out . . .
The sound of metal woke him eventually, a grim shudder of sharp surfaces being raked across one another, and quickly he discovered that he was lying flat in a dark chamber. For some reason it felt as if it must be situated beneath the city itself, although he couldn’t tell why – something about the air, perhaps, or maybe the vaguely domed ceiling that reminded him of a tomb. At the periphery of his vision, light defined the edges and flat surfaces of blades and knives and small swords hanging along the perimeter wall.
A clear voice spoke up suddenly: ‘Welcome to my abattoir.’
‘The hell are you?’ Haust gasped. The man wore a top hat, white shirt, waistcoat, black breeches, the kind of outfit normally bedecking eccentric figures found in underground theatres in Villjamur. Slender, with a thin moustache, and smiling – always smiling. To his right loomed something rather like a spider, but with two almost-human eyes. Now and then it would rear up on its two hind legs, rubbing the other six limbs together, while clicking the lower pair sharply on the stone.
‘Me?’ replied the man in the hat. ‘I just run this little show. I suppose, technically, I’m therefore your killer.’
‘But I’m not dead . . . Am I?’ Another glance around the room, just to make sure – but still, none of the signs might encourage him to believe he was in a safe world any more.
‘Give it time, dear boy,’ the man said. ‘A grammatical amendment: I will be your killer. We must be correct on such points! You really did pick the wrong night for a stroll, didn’t you?’
Haust felt himself being lifted up, confirming the presence of a rope around his waist – then it occurred to him that the rope wasn’t tight, wasn’t connected to anything else. As if noting his expression of confusion, the well-dressed man said, ‘Oh, it’s for hanging you up to drain and cool afterwards. Procedures, procedures, I do tire of them occasionally . . . you know how these things work.’
Thin smoke trails took the shape of arms, forming faint outlines of bodies, mere wisps of figures smothering him, touching him, caressing his hands, his neck, his face – in a faintly erotic manner – and he noticed how their eyes were suggested by featureless holes.
‘What are they?’ Haust was petrified – his body shuddering within the resolute grip of these wraiths.
‘You’re being lifted by what we call Phonoi,’ the man told him. ‘Grand creatures, aren’t they?’
A whisper emerged from one of the apparitions: ‘Shall we dump him now, sir . . . ? Shall we?’
‘Sir, what will you have us do with him, sir?’ another murmured. ‘What now?’
‘Shall we break his bones?’
‘Shall we rip him first?’
‘Spill his offal?’
He was hauled through the air towards a massive cauldron, with fire licking up its sides, steam skimming across its surface. Haust began to shout again, as the smiling-faced man in the top hat offered him a wave and a bow.
A sudden drop, a desperate scream – and for the second time that night, everything faded to black . . .
It started with a knock at his door in the middle of the night, then someone urgently whispering his name through the keyhole, a voice he didn’t recognize.
In his still dreamlike state, the words seemed to float towards him like a ghost of sound.
What was going on?
He was in bed with his wife, Marysa, spending his eighth full night in Villiren. Jeryd had only just become used to the late-night noises of the city, the constant hubbub, and people walking by his window at all hours – sounds that played on his mind even when his eyes were closing. Sleep was a precious business, and being in a different bed was like living in a different context. His life felt full of disorder – which was ironic, really, considering that it had now been stripped down to the bare minimum.
He rubbed his hand over his paunch, and absent-mindedly swished his tail back and forth at the tip. Too damn late in the evening for such a disturbance. Over a hundred and something years to reflect on, and he couldn’t remember the last time his life seemed like this, so constantly up in the air. Until recently his work had always been his life. He had felt safe when representing the Inquisition of Villjamur. He knew what the routines were, what was expected of him. He had substance, a knowledge of where he did and did not fit in, and now without his regular routine, the confidence of his many years was undermined.
The only calibrator of his previous existence was his wife, Marysa. Marriages had their ups and downs, didn’t they, but recently they had both rediscovered their love for each other, and that made his existence just fine. In fact, their separation from their home city had brought them even closer together. He couldn’t want much else. He glanced instinctively towards Marysa, whose white hair, such a contrast to her tough black skin, now attracted the glare of one of the moons as it slanted through the shutters in strips. Her own tail wafting gently beneath the sheets, the presence of her sleeping form was deeply comforting.
Again came that whisper: ‘Investigator Rumex Jeryd!’
‘Oh, hang on!’
Now he was more annoyed at his sleep being disturbed, than curious as to the reason someone wanted to speak to him. For a moment he lay there thinking, If someone calls on you in the middle of the night it’s seldom to tell you anything nice. Should I bother seeing who it is?
Embers were still glowing in the grate, and the dust that had accumulated over the years in the room was pungent. This was only temporary accommodation because, with a war predicted, he didn’t know how long he’d stick around here.
‘Please, open up.’ The voice was calm and firm, one clearly used to issuing orders.
He flipped himself out of bed, hanging his legs over the end. Already wrapped up in thick layers, he was wearing outside them an outrageous pair of red night-breeches with hundreds of tiny gold stars stitched into the fabric. Marysa had bought them for him on their way out of Villjamur. She claimed he was too grumpy, that he needed cheering up, that he should smile more often. Vaguely ashamed, the ability to smile almost forgotten, he tiptoed across the room, his heels creaking on the floorboards.
A spider scurried across the floor, then under the cupboard, and he froze. This was Jeryd’s secret shame: he feared and hated the creatures, always had since he was a child. They infested him with paralysis and brought him out in a cold sweat. The bulbous shape, their skittering movements – such disgusting creatures.
Shuddering, but now very much awake, he crouched to look through the keyhole, but could only see blackness beyond . . .
Then an almost red eye appeared on the other side and stared back at him.
Jeryd jumped back and said, ‘Just a moment.’ He opened the door.
An albino was standing there, his pale skin glowing white even in this light, so you might easily think him a ghost. A Jamur star was pinned to his breast, conspicuous against the black fabric of his uniform. ‘Sele of Jamur, Investigator Jeryd. I’m Commander Lathraea.’
Jeryd recognized the softly spoken officer, one he had known from Villjamur but never met. He was a tall man, with narrow cheeks, a thin nose, and there was the faint whiff
‘Sele of Jamur, commander,’ he mumbled in response, rubbing his eyes. ‘What can I do for you?’
The commander moved aside as Jeryd stepped out into the corridor, pulling the door shut to allow Marysa some quiet. For a moment, the officer eyed Jeryd’s breeches with fascination. Why couldn’t she have bought him a pair in black or brown, a colour that would blend with the night? Red with gold stars, indeed.
The commander continued, ‘I put the word about for an investigator, and was told you’d come up recently from Jokull. I’d rather put my trust in someone from any other island than this one.’
Jeryd liked that because it confirmed two suspicions right away. One, the commander was a man who operated on loyalty; and two, Jeryd wasn’t the only one to assume this city was full of scumbags.
He replied, ‘Well, I’m as paranoid as any man can become these days, so your secrets are safe with me, commander. Though you could also say I’m not exactly welcome back there . . .’
‘What did you do to end up here?’
Only piss off the Chancellor – now Emperor – by uncovering corruption at the heart of the Empire. Then went on the run from those who might call me in. Came to the only city in the Empire that takes the law into its own hands, and whose Inquisition is independent of the Villjamur – though it’s not meant to be. Therefore found somewhere I could use my official medallion and connections to get work, and not starve during this ice age. All without any questions being asked. These were the things he wanted to say, just to tell anyone to get it off his chest.
Instead he muttered, ‘They never liked the fact that I didn’t complete my paperwork on time. It turns out that this benighted hole of a city is the best place for me.’