For hundred of years, the Pillars of Kathrakopolis have brought many blessings on the city, granting its citizens health, happiness, and plenty. But their ancient network is incomplete.
After decades of research, and years of construction, the Ancients’ work is about to be finished. On the Spring Equinox, when the final stone is placed in the central Great Pillar, the pillars will bless the city with a thousand years of prosperity.
The project is about to be completed. The city is about to celebrate. And four citizens’ lives are about to change.
Vinnie was the strongest in his village. So when he arrived in the inns of the Travel Quarter that night, he wasted no time in showing off his muscles.
With all the athletes here for the games tomorrow, this got him plenty of attention. In moments, a local challenged him to a wrestling match. The two of them roped in a wiry young fan with a rulebook as a ref, and the bout began.
Needless to say, Vinnie won handily. He went for a drink to celebrate. Then a couple more drinks.
The next day, he woke up lying on a couch. The floor was covered in squashed grapes, and the room stank of honey and stale wine. The house seemed empty, and Vinnie was in no hurry. He took some time check out the ornaments and explore the architecture.
Near the back of the house he found a less-fancy room with a few long-handled fans on one wall — possibly a servant’s.
In the next room, he found a woman doing her makeup. She didn’t recognise him, which might have been a good thing; but she also didn’t take to him that well. In fact, she told him to get out.
Vinnie chose a door, and got. Unfortunately, it led into the cellar.
In the first room were wine amphorae, which Vinnie noted but passed over. The good stuff would be further in.
But the second room only held a pile of old bronze weapons — and a doorway leading deeper underground.
This looked like the adventures he’d heard about! Vinnie grabbed a khopesh from the pile, and a candle from a sconce, then set off down the passage.
The corridor was only slightly curved at first, but after a few sharper corners, it became clear the passage was spiralling inwards.
As Vinnie went deeper, he noticed paintings on the walls. Familiar forms at first: humans, ogres, winged Strix, fire- and water-folk. But as the passage went on, the pictures got stranger. Mermaids. Animal heads on human bodies. One-legged and four-legged people, and other stranger things.
At the next turn, a deep voice boomed out. “Who approaches me?”
Vinnie jumped, and dropped his candle.
As he struggled to re-light it, the voice continued. “I give you a choice. If you wish to leave, leave. If you wish to continue, you must answer my riddle, or fight me. To the death.”
This was definitely an adventure. “What’s the riddle?”
“My mother’s house has three doors.
Through the first door came a bundle, wrapped in white.
Through the second door, a woman veiled in blue.
Through the third door, a box, painted black.
On which river did my mother build her house?”
“What sort of riddle is that?!”
Perhaps this had been a mistake. Or perhaps it was just a small gnome with a big voice.
Vinnie re-lit the candle. Before him stood a minotaur. The creäture was easily twice his height.
“Well? Will you answer my riddle, or fight?”
Vinnie tried a few answers, but nothing seemed to satisfy the creäture. He tried questions, and got a few more details — but then the minotaur roared at him for tricking out a hint.
Then he fell silent. Words jumbled in his head. He tried to remember all the rivers he’d heard of.
At last, one answer was clear in his mind. “Life. The river is life.”
The minotaur’s hands fell to its sides. “Surprising! That is not the answer I expected, but … it is a good answer. You may pass.” It hastily closed its mouth. “But do not think I will be so lenient when I return.”
In the darkness, Vinnie could see a faint silver glow beyond the minotaur. When he stepped around the next corner, it was a blinding silver light…
As an avid wrestling fan, there was only one place Quenton would stay: the Travel Quarter. He kept up with every match, and knew all the rules by heart. Why, the night before, some goat farmer from out of town had asked him to ref a bout.
But he’d never been brave enough to try the sport himself.
This morning was different. This morning, when he woke up, there was a bag at the foot of his bed with his name on it.
With care, and a long stick, he opened the package. Out fell a piece of coloured silk, and a note:
Now is the time for you to take your place.
You are the first. This is your day.
But I warn you, there is no way out.
Don’t play their games.
In dreams, there is escape.
— The Red King
Odd. “Dandelion” wasn’t a name Quenton would use, but he had always liked “Wildflower”.
The cloth was a silk wrestler’s mask, and it matched the costume Quenton slept in. With it on, Wildflower went to join the tournament outside.
It wasn’t hard to find. criers were everywhere announcing it. “Wrestle in the Tournament! Prove your strength! A goblet of Ambrosia for the winner! Donated by PAN, the Cooking Implement!”
“First up, Katraktes versus …?” the announcer queried.
Perhaps the announcer was a bit taken aback, but by the time they beat Katraktes, Wildflower had the audience shouting their name.
So did the next opponent, a hulking man called Aristechon the Blue. As the crowds chanted — “Wild-Flower! Wild-Flower!” “Blue! Blue! Blue!” — the two wrestlers sized each other up. Wildflower may not have looked that big, but Aristechon wasn’t going to underestimate them that easily.
Even so, something in the bigger man’s stance must have given Wildflower an opening. With a swift kick, they knocked Aristechon off his feet. The big man tried to climb up, but Wildflower was too fast for him. In one moment, they had their knee on his opponent’s neck; a few more seconds, and Blue’s face was pressed into the hay at the edge of the ring. The bout was Wildflower’s.
By now, it was mid-morning, and the first section was over. There was time to rest and eat oranges before the grand final.
After four oranges, Wildflower stepped into the ring to face their opponent: Cordwynn Zandt, champion of the Giants’ section.
The moment the bout started, she grabbed them in one huge fist. Wildflower twisted out of her grip.
Cordwynn grabbed them again. “Do you know why I joined this tournament? No-one here is my equal. No-one here realises how incompetent they are, except me. Except me, and possibly you.”
Again, Wildflower escaped her hand. This time, they ducked past the ogre, hoping to attack her from behind.
She still caught them easily. “If you think you are my equal, prove it. Prove you have learned what I came here to learn.” She raised her captive to eye level. “Prove to me that you know how to lose.”
Just escaping her grasp wasn’t going to cut it. Wildflower hit back, their punches falling as fast as fire. Finally they landed a sharp hit to her stomach, and she dropped the smaller wrestler.
But she was too angry for silly questions now. This time, when she picked up Wildflower, she reached back to throw them out of the ring.
They twisted — or slipped — in her grip, and flew backwards out of her hand.
Towards the judges, across the prize table, and straight into the wide goblet of Ambrosia.
There must have been some spark, because everything disappeared in blinding green flame…
Chapton was going to be absolutely ready for the tournament, and the foot- and wing-races. His stretches the night before got him some attention, but he wasn’t going to be drawn into the partying. He would sleep early tonight, and closer to the tournament than anyone else: right there, on the grass of the athletic Mile.
All strix in Kathrakopolis study the sky, and the meaning of the stars. Chapton was no exception. Perhaps he didn’t remember all the lessons he’d sat in, but he knew how to tell when something was wrong.
When he woke up on the Mile, that morning, something was wrong. Seriously wrong. But what? He flew up to get a closer look, but even from a height he couldn’t put a wing-tip on the problem.
He needed guidance for this. And there was only one place for that: the Peak, home of all the city’s wisest strix.
By the time he left the tournament, the announcers were already calling out. “A goblet of Ambrosia for the winner!”. Chapton allowed himself one last look back. Then he set his sights firmly on the mountain ahead.
He flew high, then dove towards the astronomers’ wells, near the top of the mountain. It was wonderful to fly this fast. So easy to let everything go, forget about the earth below … and remember just in time that earth was something you could hit. He pulled up sharply, and stopped just feet away from the top of the well.
One of the elders glared at him. “Hurry up. Get down there! We have to evacuate.”
“Get away from the surface. Haven’t you seen the falling star?”
So that’s what was wrong with the sky. But Chapton wasn’t going to just run away from danger. Even if it was a star.
He turned to strix climbing below him — a perfect audience — and spoke eloquently. There was a city below them, full of non-strix with no wells to evacuate. They had to be warned. They had to be saved.
At first he thought they were going to ignore him. Then there was a wave of applause from the crowd. A circle of elders quickly assembled at the top of the hill (and oddly, one wingless person from the lower city).
After a brief discussion, Chapton told them his plan: “Get me our strongest young Strix, and send them down into the city. We need to find their leaders: the master smiths, the politicians, the soldiers. Take them aside, explain to them the danger of the falling star, and tell them what they have to do:
“There’s a tournament down there, and a great race. We’re going to have them run that race up the Circle of All, the big road north out of the city. Everyone’s going to enter, and there’ll be the prize of a lifetime at the end. Then when they’ve reached the end and are safe, we can explain that the prize was not being hit by the star.”
With that decided, Chapton flew straight to the docks, to find the first leader: Captain Lyssa Thane, world-circumnavigator.
She wasn’t easy to convince. At first she didn’t even believe the sky was falling. The person from the city had mentioned her navigator, Delph. He understood the problem, and Lyssa believed him. But she still wouldn’t agree to his plan.
Her sailors were too tired to take the ships out again. And she’d only just returned to the city. To run away now would be worse than cowardice.
Chapton needed a new plan.
Fortunately, plans came easily to him. “You’re a soldier, right. You have cannons?”
“Well, I …”
“Get them all to shoot at the falling star. We know where it’s going to hit: the Great Pillar, at the centre of the city. Get them there, and we can shoot it out of the sky.”
Lyssa’s parade was going there anyway. She turned to her troops. “Soldiers! We have a problem that can be solved by shooting at it!”
Then she gave Chapton a set of tracer arrows. “My troops need something to guide their aim. Get up where they can see you, and when the star gets close enough, shoot it with one of these. That will give us a clear target
“And now, we parade to the Great Pillar! March!”
By the time her parade reached the Great Pillar, Chapton had landed on top of it.
This was the perfect vantage point. The new star was close now. So close he could see its shape.
He drew back the bow, and let the tracer arrow fly. A plume of white smoke followed it, and the arrows of Lyssa’s troops below flew up to meet it.
(“Arrows? I thought they had cannons or something!”)
As one arrow, the volley hit the star. It burst. And everything was covered with a blinding golden light…
There were good takings for a pickpocket in the Travellers’ Quarter. Some goat farmer from out of town was wrestling and got a few bets, so Jethan took a nice share of the takings.
Time to settle down with a drink. This had been a night well spent.
Dawn found Jethan back at home: a decent place in the Docks Quarter, not too expensive or too cheap.
There was a new star shining out the window to the south.
Jethan knew a bit about omens and stars, and there wasn’t supposed to be a new star for the opening of the Great Pillar. This called for an astronomer’s advice.
The best astronomer in the Docks was Delph, Lyssa Thane’s navigator — and fortunately, Lyssa’s expedition had just returned this morning. Jethan dodged the expensive-looking crates the soldiers were unloading, and found him taking measurements of the sky.
But he wasn’t hopeful. Far to the west, he’d seen a valley miles wide, with an island in the centre that held the remains of inhuman things. That, he thought, was the destructive work of a fallen star. The realm of stars was one of Fire; nothing that fell from the sky could be good for the city.
But Delph didn’t have enough data to know what to do. The best he could suggest was to ask the advice of the astronomers on the Peak.
When Jethan arrived, the Strix were in uproar. Some youngster was making a speech about making the city, but most of the Strix were just trying to evacuate themselves.
Jethan’s was only an ironic clap. But then or two Strix nearby joined in, and suddenly they were applauding the kid.
They were having some sort of council, and dragging the astronomers out of the wells to answer question. Jethan asked them for specifics: how big was this star? What was it going to do? (Handy language to learn, Strix!)
There was a babble of astronomy jargon, and several Strix huddled together. Finally a spokes-strix, one called Argus, emerged from the group.
He had good news: the star was only a cart-sized object. It might break up into a handful of pieces, but they wouldn’t damage much more than a few city blocks between them. Of course, you still didn’t want to be in those blocks — but the rest of the city would be safe.
“Nonsense! It’s the biggest star ever to fall. It will devastate the city! It means —”
“Shut up!” Argus yelled at the other strix. “Jerome, you were the one who told us it wasn’t going to hit for another year. Everyone else’s calculations agree, except yours.” A chorus of astronomers chimed in on Argus’ side.
Then the young guy who’d started the speech started making suggestions. Jethan chose that moment to fade into the background and escape.
But where to go? Where would be quiet?.
In the Noble Quarter, all the higher-ups were ensconced in their houses preparing for the ceremony at noon. The streets were abandoned, except for the shadows of houses and Pillars.
As an initiate of Bracaden, Jethan meditated on the angles of the shadows. There were two sets: one cast by the sun, and a second, moving set from the new star. The star was moving towards a destination: the incomplete Great Pillar.
But look over there — wasn’t that the house of Than the Elder, the High Magistrate? The man who would place the last stone?
Most of the household was away celebrating, and Thane would be inside somewhere holding his vigil before the ceremony. It wasn’t hard to sneak in.
Jethan found Thane kneeling before a model pillar, the emblem of Kalagon. One quick, but calm explanation later, he was happy to help. Thane insisted he had to place the keystone — but if he did it early, before the star hit at noon, the Great Pillar itself might give them some protection.
In a few minutes, Jethan was watching Thane from the foot of the scaffolding around the Great Pillar. He heaved the stone onto a scaffold above its place.
Then a figure with a face caked in make-up marched into the square. “What are you doing? You can’t place the keystone yet! I am PAN, the Kitchen Implement, and I have to sing!”
Jethan pointed out the stupidity of this. Ceremony might be nice when possible, but it wasn’t worth letting the city be destroyed for the sake of a song.
The assembling crowds found their argument convincing. Thane the Elder, however, paused to listen. And PAN started to sing anyway.
Then Jethan noticed the lay of the shadows.
The sun was only inches away from noon. The argument with PAN had held Thane up just long enough, and the meteor was about to strike.
Jethan ran up the scaffolding, lifted the stone, and slammed it into the waiting slot — just as the meteor was hit by a hail of arrows.
The runes on the Great Pillar glowed blue, and the meteor lit up with an answering, blinding glow…
A flash of light
It all happened in a moment.
From a pool of water in the centre of too-bright silver ring, a woman in blue held out a scimitar to Vinnie. He took it. Then it was dark, and when his eyes adapted the woman was gone and the pool was dry. Inside was the single rune Alpha, the First.
Wildflower was covered by the blue alcohol flame, and breathed the strange scent of Ambrosia. In their mind’s eye, a vision unfolded of the rivers of Kathrakopolis running with liquor, through barren soil and empty houses. Then it faded, and they were wrapped in magic.
Chapton felt the force of lightning strike, and turn under his hands, becoming something new and powerful. He had changed.
Jethan dropped the keystone into place, and felt the heat of the runes run up through their hands.
Perhaps the runes dimmed a little, but the light that filled their body was clear and strong. And what was that creäture waiting nearby?
And the crowd around the pillar cheered; for Kathrakopolis, greatest city in the world, was saved.