For a fraction of a second the window seemed to bulge inwards, and then there was only an expanding cloud of coloured glass shapes raining down upon the marble floor as Justin burst into the hall. With a great sweep of his wings he halted in the air, hanging for a moment before he dropped down to land on the magistrate’s podium. There was a crash of splintering wood as claws the size of cart-wheels tore into the platform. Rachael saw the old man scrambling away, feet tangling in his long coat. Majestically, Justin swept his wings outwards. The wind buffeted the whole chamber and Rachael stumbled back a step. Then his lungs swelled and he let out a deafening cry that rattled the glass in the remaining windows.
Silence followed. Towards the back of the room she saw a pair of grey-coated guards standing with their swords drawn, but clearly unwilling to approach. She wondered how long they would have before more came, with guns.
Justin surveyed the silent chamber once more. Then the vast black form of the bird dissolved down to the shape ofthe young man in a flowing black coat with his messy hair swept back, standing in the centre of the chamber. He grinned, amused, arrogant, entirely sure of himself, and in the face of those sparkling gold flecked eyes her fears seemed to vanish. The courtroom continued to empty, people pushing past each other in their panic. At the doors she could see more guards struggling to get into the room, but they were fighting the press of bodies. When the centre of the chamber cleared she remained alone, as Justin walked calmly towards her.
And then she realised that she was not alone. Standing beside her, Arsha reached out to take her hand. The girl looked frightened, but she held her ground.
“I wasn’t sure…” Rachael began, a guilty feeling twisting her stomach. She couldn’t seem to get the words out.
“Yes you were,” Justin said. “I’ll always come for you. You know that.”
He spoke calmly, but as his eyes fixed on hers she saw the turmoil behind that gaze. The uncertainty. The hurt. She had doubted him, and he knew it.
“I believe it. I believe it now,” she said, uncomfortable with the tacit admission.
“It’s OK,” he said, a little of his affected arrogance slipping away. “I shouldn’t have left you…”
“Just… Shut up,” she said. His eyes flickered towards the guardsmen now pushing their way through the crowd at the door.
“We should go,” he said.
“And her?” he nodded to Arsha. Rachael turned to look her sister in the eye.
“It’s your choice,” she said, keeping her voice as level as she could. To her astonishment, Arsha barely blinked. The girl’s eyes were cool and hard.
“I said I was coming with you. No matter what,” she said. Still, Rachael couldn’t help notice the way she avoided looking at Justin when she spoke.
“OK,” Justin said. “Let’s go.”
Glancing back, Rachael noticed Manindra and Naveen. When the rest of the court fled, they had remained. So too had the crew of the Triskelion. Micah, Ilona, Abasi and Milima all watched them from the tiered seats. Not one of them said a word, but Rachael got the feeling they were holding their tongues, waiting to see what happened next. Even Maya had remained, lurking at the very back of the room, Rukiya standing before her with her blade held firmly in one hand.
Naveen also had his sword drawn, and was edging forwards slowly. His father stood back, with an expression that seemed almost awestruck.
Justin looked at Naveen’s towering form, and just shook his head.
“Don’t,” he said.
Though she could see his hands trembling, Justin’s eyes remained fixed and calm. Watching the way he projected that cool demeanour, Rachael found herself achingly aware of how desperately she had missed him.
A clatter of heels against the marble alerted them to the guards breaking through into the chamber. They had lightning ballistas cradled in their arms. Taking advantage of the moment, Naveen advanced a step and Rachael saw that even Ilona half-raised a hand, as if to level the arc-gauntlet that she had been forced to leave behind.
Justin’s reaction was immediate. He stepped between the girls, a hand pushing each of them back a step.
“The podium,” he said sharply. She didn’t have time to ask what he meant, as instantly he began to change. A heartbeat later the giant raven dominated the chamber once more, claws gouging thin lines into the marble floor.
Turning to glance back, Rachael saw what he meant. The magistrate’s podium stood high above the courtroom floor. From there they would be able to climb onto his back. Taking Arsha’s hand, she dashed up the steps as Justin moved towards the guards.
He let out another ear-splitting cry, and as the guards staggered he swept his wings forward in flashing arcs of glistening black feathers. Naveen darted forward with an angry roar. Then the wing-tip caught him in the chest, hurling him across the chamber. There was a painful sound as he struck the far wall and fell to the floor. His sword clattered to the ground. Micah was scrambling over the benches, unarmed but still making a beeline towards herself and Arsha. It was strange how easily she expected his thoughtless heroism. Still she felt a wave of relief when Ilona tackled him, pinning the man to a bench, clear of the fighting.
The other wing swept through the guardsmen, not striking any directly but flooring them all with the clap of air that followed hard in its wake. Rachael felt a rush of excitement as she saw weapons knocked from hands. One man kept his grip, and from a prone position he pointed the lightning ballista upwards to fire. Justin simply reached down with his curved black beak and plucked the gun from the man’s hands. There was a snap, and two halves of the weapon fell to the ground.
Forcing herself to look away, despite the giddy rush she felt at seeing Justin so thoroughly demolishing the grey coated guardsmen, Rachael clambered up the podium, hauling a dumbstruck Arsha with her. As they clambered onto the Lord Inquisitor’s desk, she glanced back and saw that the old man had not left the room after all. Below the back edge of the raised dais he was huddled against the wall, a frightened look in his eyes. It almost seemed impossible that it could be same man who had commanded the entire chamber into hushed silence with every word. Now Rachael saw the way his skin sagged around his eyes, the way his wrinkled hands shook. He looked up and met her gaze. She wanted to turn away, ashamed of seeing him like this. She wanted to say something cruel. Something comforting. Something proud. There were no words that could encompass everything she was feeling. She turned to look at Justin, as he swept his wings back once more and ruffled his feathers, the gesture making her think of the way he would flick his hair back.
A guard made to scramble for his gun. The clack of claws against marble seemed to send a clear enough message. The chamber belonged to Justin. He turned his head back and forth, sweeping his gaze about the benches, daring someone to answer his challenge. The room seemed to hold its breath. Micah had ceased struggling, though Ilona still kept his arm pinned behind back, her eyes watching Justin cautiously. Abasi and Milima watched with the same cautious expressions. Only Manindra seemed curiously unafraid. In his eyes she saw only a burning hunger. He seemed not even to have noticed that his son lay in a crumpled heap at the back of the chamber.
Then Maya stepped forwards. As she pulled her white scarf back, Rachael saw a sadness in her expression. Her bodyguard was already dashing forward to interpose herself between Justin and the young woman.
When Maya spoke, the world seemed to ring like a bell. Rachael staggered, nearly falling off the podium. She saw Justin shaking his head, as if trying to stop the sound from hammering in his ears.
Again Maya opened her mouth, but no words came out. Or at least no words that she could hear. She knew somehow that the woman had spoken, but the words seemed as if they would not fit inside her head. Again there was something that went beyond sound, making the whole world shake. Her stomach churned and her head swam. Everything seemed to be moving slowly, as if the air had turned to syrup.
Again Maya’s mouth opened, the soundless words forming. Blood red tears were tracking down the woman’s face. Rachael heard Justin’s shriek of pain, slicing through the ringing echoes in her head. Black smoke boiled off of his body, and he seemed to flicker like an old television. Like he was there and not, at the same time. For the briefest of instants, instead of the vast form of the raven there was only a boy, on his knees, screaming in pain.
Then the raven lunged, curved beak darting forward. In the blink of an eye Rukiya was there, pushing Maya away. Rachael saw blood as Justin’s beak closed around the woman’s leg. He flicked his head up, tossing Rukiya aside like a doll. Sprawled on the floor, Maya looked up at him with eyes wide in terror as Justin drew back his head to strike again.
Rachael felt her mouth moving, felt more than heard herself shouting at Justin to stop. For a moment, he hesitated. Then Maya’s lips moved. This time she did not speak the words. She shouted them, at the top of her lungs. Rachael’s head swam, and she felt herself falling, tumbling down from the podium onto the cold floor of the chamber. When her head stopped swimming, the raven was gone. Justin lay on his side, curled into a tight little ball of pain, his black coat spilling out around him. Hazily, she noticed that the floor was still covered in brightly coloured shards of glass.
She looked up to see Maya standing over her, swaying unsteadily. The woman fell to her knees, drops of blood falling from her chin. She felt the woman’s hand cradling the back of her neck, lifting her head a little. Enough for them to look each other in the eyes.
“…Because I saw what would happen if I didn’t.” The woman gasped, her voice barely more than a whisper. “And I couldn’t imagine anything that could be worse. I’m sorry, Rachael. I’m so sorry.”
She heard the words, but they seemed like something distant, like a conversation overheard. Just a fading echo. It seemed as if all the sound had been sucked out of the world. She wanted to lash out at the woman, punch her, kick her, spit on that delicate face. But it was all so pointless. All her rage seemed to float around her, empty and useless. Her arms and legs felt numb. Her chest seemed to have a weight pressing down on it.
She saw the guards gathering up their weapons, saw them close in from all sides. Maya was lifted to her feet, carried away by men with nervous expressions. She saw the men coming to take herself and Arsha. She didn’t fight. She couldn’t. Her legs didn’t seem to work any more. One of the men hauled her to her feet and began to drag her away. She couldn’t tear her eyes away from Justin’s face, that look of agony turning to shame. She saw tears forming in his eyes as his hands clenched tight, knuckles showing white. Then they passed through the doors, out into the streets, and everything seemed to pass in a blur.
She remembered the tower, hovering above them, seeming to sway and bend, until she realised it was the tears blurring her vision. She remembered clean white hallways of frosted glass. Stairways cut into the substance of the tower, leading them upwards. A room, a bed.
She passed in and out of consciousness. Doctors came and went, testing her, injecting her, and scratching notes on white paper. Strange devices flickered and hummed. Whispered conversations as more notes were made. Then another injection, and she faded out again.
Eyes finally crept open on a small room that seemed to have been hollowed out from the milky green glass of the tower. It was hard to make the shape of it come into focus. The angles all seemed to be slightly wrong. She was surrounded by crisp white linens. The bed, like the small night-stand, were carved from some kind of ghostly pale wood.
Slowly, she got to her feet. Her clothes had been left folded on a chair by the door. She felt stiff, and sore, like she’d been lying in bed for days.
A simple curtain covered the doorway. Pulling it aside, Rachael stepped through into another hauntingly sterile room. A large window seemed to blend into the walls around it, as if the glass had simply been worn thin in that spot. White lace curtains framed the window on either side. Four chairs had been arranged around a small table. The furnishings were simple, all of them carved of the same sale pale white wood. Across the room from her stood a second doorway, just like the one she had come through.
Standing at the window, Rachael looked down into the streets below. The sun shone down from a clear blue sky, and for a moment the lifeless city seemed almost beautiful. Though they were higher than the tallest buildings around them, she could still make out the people and the carriages clearly. She wondered if one of them would be carrying the crew of the Triskelion back to the ship. She decided that by now they were probably already gone.
She looked down at her hands, and saw that they were shaking. In the silence, she heard the soft shuffling of bare feet on the smooth floor. Rachael looked up as Arsha slipped past the curtain that covered her door. For a moment the girl paused, surprised.
Neither of them said a word. There was a scraping sound as Arsha pulled a chair away from the small table and fell into it. Rachael turned to face the window again, watching the carriages drift through the streets.
“Do you think they’d bring us something to eat? If we asked?”
Arsha’s voice was hoarse and thin, barely a whisper.
“Maybe,” Rachael said.
From the corner of her eye she could see the way that Arsha stared at the blank tabletop. The girl seemed to have been hollowed out, like a perfectly carved model of herself.
“So, what now?” Arsha said, at last.
Rachael blinked in surprise.
“What now?” Arsha repeated, with a helpless shrug.
“What do you mean, ‘what now?’ Like I’m supposed to know?”
Arsha shrugged. The movement was so tiny that Rachael almost missed it.
“You’re the one who’s good at this stuff,” she whispered. “Not me.”
Arsha lifted her head just a little, looking at Rachael with a helpless expression.
“You must have some kind of plan, right?” she said. “That’s what you do. Even when you were with us, on the ship, I know you were thinking of ways out, the whole time. I don’t know how to do this. I’m not a strong as you. You’ve survived so much.”
Rachael felt a sound curl up from somewhere deep inside of her, somewhere a heavy sigh and a kind of sick laughter. She shook her head, as he fingertips brushed the smooth surface of the glass window.
“Yeah, I have a plan. Give in. Let them win. Whatever happens now I can’t do anything about it, so I’m going to close my eyes and hope the worst part is over quick.”
“How can you say that?”
Arsha’s voice was a stunned gasp. Again, Rachael felt that sick, bitter sound of laughter welling up from inside.
“Because that’s what surviving is. It’s getting by, holding on, keeping some tiny little part of yourself moving. That’s all. Your dad tried to win, Justin tried to win, and none of it mattered a damn. People like Manindra and Reuben always win, and the people who fight them just get stepped on. So screw your dad and whatever fight he’s got with the old man, and screw Maya, and all the rest too.”
“He’s your dad too,” Arsha said. “Remember?”
“Whatever. I just want it all done with,” Rachael turned away and pressed her forehead to the glass, feeling the warm sunlight against her skin as she closed her eyes.
The sun was setting when they heard the sound of the door opening. No knock, just Sir Reuben standing in the doorway, speaking softly to one of the guards. Then the door closed and for a moment he stood in silence, looking about the room.
His eyes turned to the table, where food and a jug of iced water had been left for them by the guards. Fresh bread, sliced ham and beef, salad, and small bowl of fruit. None of it had been touched. He looked to each of them in turn, waiting for a reaction. Eventually he shrugged, pulled up a chair and sat down at one end of the small table.
“How are you both feeling?” he said, his voice soft, almost gentle. “The apothecaries tell me you’re mostly recovered.”
Silence greeted him. Neither of the girls even bothered to look at the man, as he reached out selected an apple from the bowl in front of him.
“I don’t suppose either of you are hungry. No? You should eat, really. It’s going to be a while before we see fresh fruit like this again.”
He bit into the apple, chewing slowly, the sound of it filling the room.
“I am very sorry about what happened. The seer has been taken into custody, of course. I’m told that the fatecraft she used is very, very old, and very powerful. The Chamber, of course, denies any knowledge of how she could have come to learn such a thing. Your shifter has, of course, also been taken into custody.”
At the mention of Justin, Rachael looked up at the man, her eyes cold.
“What did you do to him?”
For a moment, Reuben said nothing, studying his half finished apple as if it fascinated him.
“He’s alive and well. Better than he was a few days ago, in point of fact. Our fateworkers have put a binding on him, of course. To prevent any further use of his… abilities. But he’s in no danger.”
“That supposed to be some kind of threat?” she growled.
“Of course not,” Reuben said, quite sharply. “I’m not here to bully you, Rachael. What I want is to put an end to this. I want to find some way that we can assure your safety, and the safety of all the people within the Hearth.”
There was a pause. Her throat felt dry.
“Because of the Seed,” she said.
“Yes. Because of the Seed. Because in all of their ridiculous feuding, your adopted father and Lord Bhandari have allowed this rot to continue to to fester, whilst more and more innocent people suffer.”
“Feuding? You were the idiot that thought they were working together.” Rachael snapped.
“Young lady, I am well aware of just how much those two despise each other. I’m an Inquisitor, it’s my job to know when I’m being lied to.”
“Then why’d you go after her dad so hard back there, if you knew he was only trying to help?”
“Whatever Chandra is trying to do here, it certainly isn’t helping. I had only one goal in that courtroom, and that was to see to it that neither of those men had any more part in this. They’ve both done more than enough damage already.”
“What do you mean?” Arsha exclaimed. She had been so quiet that the sudden outburst seemed to catch both of them by surprise. “My dad’s been doing nothing but try to stop what’s happening in London. If you and Manindra hadn’t been chasing after him all this time, he’d be there right now trying to stop the Seed and everything else that’s happened. This is your fault, because you wouldn’t trust him, and because you didn’t stop Manindra from getting away with all the awful things he was doing.”
Watching the girl’s eyes, Rachael could see that she was holding back tears. Arsha’s mouth was set in a hard line, her anger barely masking everything else she was feeling.
“I wish I could believe that, young lady. I really do. I know you think the world of your father, and I’m sorry that I have to be the one to tell you this, but he doesn’t deserve the faith you have in him.”
“How can you say that? You don’t know anything about him,” Arsha snapped.
“Yes, I do,” he said, heavily. There was another pause. He seemed to be gathering his thoughts. “A mentor once told me that a guardsman looks for where the crime is. An Inquisitor looks for where a crime isn’t. A broken window, a tavern brawl, these things are easily solved. But the absence of a crime… How do you investigate that?”
He let the question hang in the air for a moment, though it was clear he wasn’t expecting an answer.
“I have been taking an interest in your father’s activities for a very long time now,” Reuben continued. “Ever since I was a junior officer in fact. He’s covered his tracks well, mostly with Lord Bhandari’s help. Bhandari, you have to understand, has always kept himself at a remove. He prefers to work through others. Your father was one of his finest agents. Nothing we’ve ever been able to prove, of course. Barely any evidence at all. Mostly it was the signs of where evidence was missing. Inconsistencies and alterations. References to forbidden archives, redacted statements, trails of paperwork that lead back on themselves in endless circles. But I continued to pick at the threads. A little here, a little there, but it all adds up, given time. I spent the time. Years. And in those years I have begun to get a very clear picture of what kind of man your father is. What he and Manindra have done.”
“What do you mean?” Arsha said. Rachael caught the note of growing uncertainty in her voice.
“I mean Fallen Peak. I mean the trail of bodies they left getting there, and getting back again.”
“You’re lying,” Arsha snapped at him. “He told me what happened at Fallen Peak. I was born there. He nearly died getting me out alive.”
“Yes. I’ve heard his story. How the expedition was marooned. How he fell in love with one of the researchers working for him. How she died in a storm that wracked the outpost. How they finally managed to get one of the ships flying again, with only half a dozen of them left alive. How the hardship of the journey caused most of his remaining crew to lose their minds. I’ve heard it all. And it’s a lie, every bit of it.”
“How do you know that?” Arsha said.
“Because I’ve been there. Because I wanted to see for myself what could have been so important that so much effort was spent to conceal it. Do you know what I found? Nothing. Or, very nearly nothing. Manindra and your father were out there for seven years. Stranded, supposedly, with a crew of sixty all told. That many people, living in one place for that long… There should have been a mountain of evidence. But what I found was the signs of a simple temporary encampment. No struggle. No disaster. They were there for perhaps six months at the most. The only sign of any struggle was the outpost itself… Or, what was left of it. The whole thing had been reduced to a smouldering crater. So for six and a half years I can offer no account whatsoever of where Manindra and your father went to. Six and a half years, during which sixty people died or were lost, and an ancient Ur citadel was reduced to ash and rubble, with no clear answer as to why or how.”
“That’s not true,” Arsha said, her voice on the edge of breaking.
“I’m sorry,” he said. “You don’t deserve this. Neither of you deserve any of what’s happened to you. I wish there was time to… To explain. To help you understand what’s happening here. What has been happening for many years now. But then, even if we had all the time in the world, I don’t suppose any of this would be any easier to accept.”
He drew a heavy breath, and downed the rest of his water.
“Unfortunately, every moment the Seed continues to grow, and the walls of reality around it weaken. Soon it be strong enough to tear the Veil apart, and unleash an unimaginable chaos on all of the Hearth. The apothecaries tell me you’re both well enough to travel, which means we have to make our move now. I came here because I felt you both deserved an explanation for what is happening, and because I would really prefer to do this with your cooperation. We think there is a chance, a slim chance, that the Seed can be made dormant again. That’s why we need you, Rachael. Because you awakened it. And Arsha… if you are now Fatebound to her, then we may well need your assistance as well. My ship is being prepared as we speak. We’ll set sail for the Hearth within the hour. My men will come for you then.”
“And what if we don’t help? What are you gonna do then?” Rachael said.
He shrugged helplessly.
“Whatever we have to. I’m sorry, Rachael, but there are billions of lives in the balance here. Against that cost, to sacrifice a few… Even a few million…”
“What do you mean?”
“If nothing else can be done… If the Seed cannot be safely contained… Then we will bring fire. We will burn every part of it away, and the whole city with it. And then we’ll pray that’s enough.”
She said nothing. There was a scraping sound as he pushed his chair back. At the doorway he paused, and turned to look at them both.
“I’m sorry for what I had to do to your father. For what it’s worth, I truly believe there is a great deal of good in him. None of us are born monsters. But even the most noble of us carry something inside ourselves. There’s a beast lurking in our hearts, and once we set it free, we might never be able to tame it again.”
Arsha’s eyes were red with tears as she looked up at the man with a hateful expression.
“Just go away,” the girl whispered, her voice hoarse. Slipping an arm around her sister’s shoulders, Rachael said nothing, but the look she gave the man made it clear that she felt the same. With a dejected nod, he turned and walked out the door. It closed behind him with barely a sound.
Copyright © 2015 by Peter Brunton. Licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.