Chapton perched on a wooden framework on top of a hundred-foot obelisk, and glared at an idiot. “Why are you trying to kill this ogre, anyway?”
“She’s been corrupting minds!” The woman stamped her boat-hook on the stone for emphasis. “Distracting the young from their work!” Stamp! “And she is unbelievably aggravating.” Stamp! She pointed the hook at a bound figure hanging from the scaffold.
The ogre twisted around in her bonds. “Do not waste your breath on words. If I ought to die, kill me.”
Chapton sighed. This had already been a long day.
“We started out fighting rats.”
Like most Strix, Chapton lived in a well. That morning, someone (naming no names) had woken him up by dropping a cacophony of bells down it.
“Is Chapton awake?”
Chapton scowled, distorting his voice to sound like his “secretary”. “Noo. He is Ouut.”
“Well then, ask him what he is doing for the Festival of Flowers today. Every other politician has a platform to announce.”
“Hee has plans. I caan’t tell youu what, but they are tremeendous plans.”
“Wonderful. I look forward to seeing what he comes up with!”
Thirty minutes of lying in bed did not produce any plan. Eventually Chapton took off for a flight through the city, to clear his head.
In most places, the festival was in full swing: flowers arranged in the streets, stalls selling jewellery and trinkets, and speakers on their soapbox platforms.
But here and there, there were patches of heavy black graffiti. He hadn’t seen it like this before: just splashes of black paint, with no recognisable image. No pattern — or was there? He flew higher.
A skull in black paint stretched across the city, from the twin temples of Aei and Oe in the north-east to Kalagon and Nesen in the centre.
Chapton didn’t want to consider the implications, but — Wait, didn’t those three people down in the Travel district look familiar?
Vinnie had run out of alcohol. Wildflower had already had to stop him extorting Meth, the lightning-smith; and now he was wandering the Festival of Flowers looking for other “business”. It wasn’t safe to let him out of sight.
“May I interest you in a business proposition?”
Vinnie turned around, and bowed low.
The woman in a straw hat inclined her head. “I am Lydia Katraktes, Kathrakopolis’s leading agronomist. My family holds most of the city’s seed grain.” Her voice dropped. “It has been stolen.”
Vinnie, dressed as Paladin, was on his way at once.
Behind him, Wildflower lifted a ringed finger to their face. “Kasita, we have a situation at the Katraktes silo. Over.”
Jethan had got the message, and joined them. Chapton arrived at the silo moments later.
Their search didn’t turn up much at first. The silo only contained rat droppings, and a few seeds. The cat’s bowl was still full.
Chapton flew out to look at the fields, then changed his mind and flew back. Paladin thought he saw a broken arrow in a flower display outside. Jethan watched Silvanus, the wolpertinga, sniff around.
Silvanus went looking for the cat.
It was dead in an alley nearby, wounded with hundreds of tiny cuts.
Near the corpse was the round footprint of something metallic. The chase was on!
Flights really were good for clearing your head. Chapton flew back to the Peak, smiling. He could tell them all about how he was helping Lady Katraktes, saving the city’s seed grain.
Somehow, the reporters made it sound like he was accusing her.
The trail led into the Forge district, past stalls selling metal flowers, strange brass piping contraptions, and the argumentative ogre Cordwynn Zandt (“Newspapers are a perversion of the natural order”).
Finally, behind a brownsmith-giant’s shop, they found the metal foot. The rest of the statue was blasted into fragments up and down the alleyway.
Before the heroes could investigate, the smith spotted Wildflower and Paladin loitering in the alley. “What do you think you’re doing here?”
Jethan took advantage of the distraction to duck inside. Chapton arrived moments too late, and landed on an empty roof.
Paladin tried to talk down the giant, but the giant would hear none of it. Something was scaring him. Paladin pushed for details. The giant whistled for … something. Rats with blades tied to their paws surged out of the smithy.
Jethan and Silvanus stopped them. A barrel-golem wearing a sombrero charged out. That was just as easily stopped. Then Wildflower pinned the giant to the ground, and the brawl was over. Then the reporters turned up.
Paladin did his best to explain why they were sitting on an unconscious giant. “It’s that gang of lightning muggers.” Chapton realised he was brandishing a bolt of lightning.
Wildflower ducked under the golem’s huge sombrero, and ran. Jethan took a moment to put on a disguise, and made their own exit.
One by one, the heroes made their reports to Lady Katraktes (“You are the Wildflower my son fought in the wrestling match?”). Jethan was the first one to notice a journalist in rushing the other way.
The printing press was a hive of activity, with all the elves trying to talk at once. With a good eavesdropping spot, once you got used to it, Elvish wasn’t that hard to understand: they were arguing about whether to print some announcement.
Jethan listened patiently, and relayed the debate to Wildflower.
Eventually, the elves decided to typeset and print it: “I – T – em space – I – S – space – H – E – R – E – B – Y …”.
Eventually they got to the meat of it: four citizens had been suspended by a “thread of Damocles”, from four of the five tallest obelisks. The proclaimer would kill all four at midnight, unless some citizen killed one of them first. And if all four were murdered early, the proclaimer would grant the last murderer a wish.
Wildflower and Jethan sprang into action: “Stop the Press!” After a few tense words, they reached an agreement: the elves wouldn’t print anything, and the heroes would protect the elves from whoever was having this printed.
But what about the people tied to the towers?.
The nearest tower was Meth’s lightning rod in the forge district. The top was swarming with rats, who lugged around bits of wood, and the body of a familiar old woman: the new priest of Esdore.
Four heroes were there in moments: Paladin and Chapton in flight, Kasita (Jethan) astride a giant raven, and Wildflower easily scaling the tower.
Kasita drove off a cloud of dust hovering maliciously over the woman. Chapton and Wildflower took out the two largest rats, and Paladin set the rest of them on fire — after retrieving the woman’s body, of course.
Even so, when he set her down for the city guards to rescue, she wasn’t breathing.
Or had her body never drawn breath in the first place?
The cloud of dust dodged around buildings and down rivers. Kasita didn’t try to match it. From the height the raven was flying at, every street was clearly visible, and every twist and turn obvious.
The dust headed to a warehouse in the Travel district, on the north bank of the river. Kasita landed on the roof, but couldn’t find a way in. Wildflower climbed up, and smashed one into the rafters.
Chapton and Paladin made a beeline for the next tower: the cracked one by the temple of Esdore. This, too, was covered in rats.
That wasn’t a problem for a Strix. Chapton flew in under the scaffold, grabbed the prisoner, and flew out.
But by now, Kasita and Wildflower were calling for help over on that roof. The prisoner wasn’t anyone Chapton recognised.
He dropped them off on a convenient raft, and flew on.
The warehouse was all one room, and full of rats. A youth with a shirt saying “RaT kiD” stood in the centre, directing them.
A cage rose out of the writhing animals. Jethan jumped down onto it, and fired a burst of sticky webbing at the “kiD”.
The people — zombies? — in the cage reached up with grasping hands, but the cage was too tall for them to be dangerous.
Rat Kid wasn’t so easily contained. Their body burst into flame, taking the webs with it. Then the flaming figure charged for Jethan.
That was about the time Wildflower fell through the ceiling.
Chapton and Paladin arrived soon afterwards, and it was all over bar the tying up of the prisoner. The zombies didn’t last long after that.
The next two pillars were miles away, across town. They had to split up.
Paladin summoned his trusty steed. Kasita had the raven. Wildflower just ran. The three of them arrived just in time.
The elves hadn’t kept their deal. Gilmen and other citizens were swarming up Ienna’s Needle.
Most were less than half-way up, and already tiring. A few words from wiser minds, and they climbed down and headed home. The lead climber was more stubborn, until Jethan’s power left him exhausted.
After that, there was no problem lowering down the prisoner: High Magistrate Thane the Elder.
And that left Chapton with the short straw. The Point Tower, rising from jagged reefs out in the bay. Only the hardiest sailors were trying to climb it, and its still-conscious prisoner was the least defensible: Cordwynn Zandt, lead contrarian of the city.
The boat-riggers weren’t quite game to attack Cordwynn while Chapton watched them, but they weren’t willing to climb down either. A few moments away from the tower-top, and there might be no-one left to save.
Chapton sighed. It was going to be an even longer night.