The statue’s hand was cold, and soft. Jethan let go quickly.
It didn’t move. Even the mark of Jethan’s hand stayed moulded into its palm. Jethan checked the other statues, but Wildflower was the only other thing in motion.
Well, Wildflower, and a shape against the blue-black sea overhead. Swimming, or sinking, towards the centre of the sunken city.
Had they left the other diving suit on the ship?
Jethan pointed, and signalled over the ring. Wildflower began trudging through the muck under the shape’s path.
Jethan took a parallel course, and stayed hidden.
Chapton swam down from the pillar, and shrugged. “I can’t blow the candle out.”
“And I can’t read any of this.” Vinnie sighed, and scanned the ruins around them. “Where’d that zombie we were following get to?”
It was swimming, rising in a slow circle. Was this the attack the Gilfolk were worried about? Was that another diver?
The strange diving suit settled feet-first into the muck. It gestured.
“What do ya mean? Why’d ya take our spare suit?”
The suit held up a hand, and gestured again.
“Look. Hold still.” Vinnie took a step towards the suit. It stepped back.
Of course it couldn’t hear him.
He took another slow step, keeping his palms up. Unclipped a spare speaking tube. One more step.
The suit waved its arms. He held up his own hand, paused, and dated forward to clip on the speaking tube. “I can hear you now.”
“I have come … to warn you.”
“Warn us of what?”
“You should not have come down here. You are … provoking things. Things you do not understand.”
“What things? You gotta give us something to work with.”
“We have to find the necromancer first.” Chapton had made that election promise, hadn’t he.
“I cannot say. If you must find the necromancer, you must … but there is far worse down here. And if you kill … if you fight, and win … you will anger things that can destroy Kathrakopolis for the slight.”
“Come on. Give us a bit of detail here.”
“I may have already said too much. The more you know of this place, the more threatened they will feel. Look, I’m on your side.” Was it slipping into a Kathrakopolitan accent? “I’ve been speaking for you, but I can only make up for so much.”
“And why should Ah trust you?”
“Believe me when I say I want Kathrakopolis to survive. That is the most I can say.”
The suit deflated and collapsed into the mud.
Even behind their chunk of pillar, Wildflower felt it. Faint, but clear: a twinge much like their own teleportation
They clipped back onto the bathyscaphe hoses. “Vinnie, Chapton, that suit might be another wrestler. Or someone else who’s had ambrosia.”
“You might be right. Ah thought it looked like some sort of magic.”
Jethan settled on the seabed beside the suit. “There was something, moving through the suit. Only for a moment.”
“Definitely magic, then.” Vinnie nodded. “But we did also find a lot of writing on this pillar. Can either of you read it?”
Gilfolk wrote right-to-left, but the inscription would start from the top.
That meant one of the pieces lying in the mud. Jethan traced the words from chunks of stone at the edge of the square:
We grant you
A city to dwell in
These our conditions
Will carry you high:
Dwell in the depths,
You may multiply, prosper;
But hunt not, nor question,
Where dark the seas lie.
Yours is the blue
Of the light-lace’d water;
Conquer the surface,
The sea, or the sky.
But seek not for secrets;
Nor match with the mountains
Tower for tower.
Reach not too high.
The bas-relief frieze must have once ended the inscription, but rougher letters had been carved over it:
Gilmen, we gave you
A city of cities;
That squandered our secrets.
So ruined, you lie.
The zombies were coming back. A ponderous two-by-two column of them, marching down one of the ruined streets.
Jethan — Kasita — slipped away into the ruins. Vinnie and Chapton heaved the bathyscaphe behind a wall, and draped it with seaweed as best they could. Chapton dashed inside, leaving the other two to face them alone.
Vinnie wasn’t hard to spot. His whole suit of armour shone, and glowing letters above his shoulders spelled out “PALADIN”. Even so, the zombies ignored him.
At the edge of the square, their column stopped, then split in half to line the sides of the street. A ponderous, dark shape moved above them. As it came into Vinnie’s light, he could make out scarred, wounded skin, and the occasional large splinter of bone. This thing was huge, larger than any of the giants in the city.
Its voice thrummed in his bones. “I am Phobos. Who are you, and what is your business here?” That must have been Runic. Paladin had never heard it spoken before.
“I’m —” Paladin remembered the water wouldn’t carry his voice, and formed runes in light instead. I AM PALADIN, FROM THE SURFACE. DO YOU CONTROL THESE ZOMBIES?
“They are the Master’s’.”
Where was the apostrophe in that? Runic grammar was complex. DO YOU MEAN THEY COMMAND YOU?
“They serve the Master, as I do I. You should see the Master.”
BUT WHO IS THIS MASTER?
“You need to see the Master. Come with me.”
Paladin lifted the bathyscaphe, Wildflower steadied the unwieldy left side, and they followed the whale down the street. The zombies fell into step on either side.
The undead whale led Paladin and Wildflower to a colonnaded plaza, like a roof-less temple. At the far end, a gilfolk woman floated idly above a throne. She looked less decayed than the zombies, except for her eyes: sparks of purple light in empty sockets.
The gilwoman looked up and spoke in Koine. “Welcome! I am Perthanossa, and this is my domain. What brings you to my fine city?” She swept out one arm, taking in the zombies, the broken walls, and the surrounding ruins.
Paladin made some attempt at a bow. “We come from Kathrakopolis. Our citizens have been attacked by zombies, and we have come to address the problem?”
Perthanossa frowned. “This is indeed a serious matter. Which of my citizens was responsible for these attacks?”
Paladin looked at his boots. “It is hard to know. The victims were alone, and they fought back out of fear. There is a lot of … unease in Kathrakopolis.”
Wildflower and Paladin began to list the threats to the city: meteors, destroyed temples, crime and kidnapping —
Perthanossa put a finger to her lips. “This is a grave matter. We should discuss it privately.” She glanced at the bathyscaphe. “My spell will prevent us being overheard. Your friends may wish to join us inside the circle.”
Chapton emerged from the bathyscaphe, and Kasita swam closer. Perthanossa waited for them, then plucked one of the purple sparks from her eyes.
The spark left a trail of light in the water as she held it; with this, she drew a chain of runes around the group, circling them from left to right and top to bottom. She finished with a flourishing signature.
Wildflower let their own power of truth flow out, but it didn’t seem to have much effect on the necromancer. Not that she seemed duplicitous, but it would have been nice to be sure.
The purple runes left the world outside blurred. The ocean noises faded to a nigh-imperceptible susurrus.
Perthanossa replaced her eye. “We can speak freely now. This spell will hide what we say from the Masters: the Thirteen who rule here, and whom I fear are attacking your city.”
Wildflower adjusted their silk outfit. “We have been contacted by someone called the ‘Red King’. Could they be one of the Masters?”
“That’s not a name I know.” Perthanossa shrugged. “The 13 Masters raised this city for the gilfolk, but in the end wished to destroy it. All but one, that is; with Prometha’s aid, I defied them.” A wild grin. “I went beyond even her reach. In the realm of Asham, I stole the secrets of Death itself, and used them to bring the gilmen back to glorious life.”
Wildflower shared a glance with Kasita.
Paladin didn’t seem to notice. “So what do these Masters look like? Can they look like us?”
“Not in their natural form, but it’s certainly within their power.”
“Why would they be destroying the temples?”
“The temples have been destroyed?” The sparks in Perthanossa’s eyes burned brighter. “That could not be the Masters’ doing. The temples are their way to keep control of the city: they set themselves up as gods, to sway the population.” She laughed. “If you can destroy their temples, we may have a chance against them.”
Kasita frowned. “The thing in the Temple of Esdore shot me, once, and I barely got back alive. How was that a victory?”
“When you got back, was that thing still there? Hadn’t the temple crumbled into ruins? Believe me, you were the victors there.”
Paladin tapped his fingers absently on the diving suit. “And the pillars? Should we destroy those too?”
“Big stone monoliths that protect Kathrakopolis — stop diseases and meteor strikes and stuff. Been there longer than anyone can remember.”
Jethan nodded. “The column in the middle of this city warns against building too high. We had the pillars, but the center one — the keystone — was missing. Thane the Elder was about to rebuild it when things started to threaten the city.”
“But the city was built around the pillars —” Wildflower started a gesture, stopped. “Kathrakopolis was founded by Kalagon, right? But then what would that mean?”
Kasita unclipped their rabbit-faced mask. “Perthanossa, whatever we find out, it seems we’re on similar paths against the Masters.” They raised the mask and attached goggles, revealing their one purple eye. “I’ve also been into death’s domain, and returned.”
Perthanossa’s eyes lit even brighter. “Then hope does exist!”
“I hope so.” Jethan lowered the mask. “While I was dead, though, I met Gat; and he told me some curious things. He said Ienna had made a sacrifice, but I don’t think I was speaking to him in this time. Then, when I came back here, Ienna’s symbol was on the moon.”
Perthanossa shook her head. “Not ‘has made’, ‘Is making’. Ienna’s strength has been gradually failing; I hear it is nearly paralysed.”
As Jethan and Vinnie took that in, Wildflower spoke. “What about my god, Helta?”
“Helta is not one for great secrets; it is young, brash, and straightforward. It dwells on the other side of the circle here, ready to fight all comers.”
Something still didn’t add up to Jethan. “I follow Bracaden, god of the search for secrets. But doesn’t your column say not to search? Why would the gods — ‘masters’ — be encouraging this now?” They paused. “Or could Bracaden be replacing Prometha?”
Perthanossa frowned. “Perhaps. If Bracaden is a god of secrets, that itself may be a secret you’d need to find.”
That thought took some digesting.
Wildflower asked another question. “And are these Masters on another plane? Or are they somewhere in this world?”
“Another plane? I’m not sure what you mean by that. The Masters certainly dwell in this world, in the greater circle around my city.”
Vinnie’s lights dimmed a little. “So could we have met one of them? What was that big, bright light we saw as we were coming down?”
“A big, bright light? That must have been Sweíd. I believe you would know it as Nesen.”
Chapton’s eyes widened.
For a while, each of the heroes was silent thinking over the new revelations. Eventually Perthanossa spoke again. “We have forgotten your first question. What harm have my citizens done yours?”
Kasita stepped in before Vinnie said anything too inflammatory. “They are afraid. Seeing the dead come before them — perhaps start to attack them — they react without thinking.”
Perthanossa sighed. “I will see what I can do. For myself, I would not care if they never went to the surface. But they listen to Helta, and it is driving them up.”
One last question: “What about that diving suit just now. Who was that?”
“It must have been a Master, but I cannot be sure who —”
A piercing whistle cut through Perthanossa’s words. Vinnie spun around.
Wildflower shouted over the noise: “It’s the low-air alarm! It’ll fade in a moment, but we have to go soon!”
Perthanossa rubbed at one of her eyes. “My spell is fading as well. I wish you all the luck you can find.”
Vinnie and Chapton loaded the bathysphere.
Kasita stayed with Perthanossa. “Could you teach us that spell? Being able to communicate in secret could be useful.”
“Certainly. Just a moment.” Perthanossa gestured at one of the zombies, which brought her a wax-coated tablet. She scraped out a neat page of text, and handed it to Jethan. “Here you are. Perthanossa’s Private Sanctum.”
The bathyscaphe had dropped its lead weights on the sea floor, and was beginning to drift upwards. Jethan’s strong kicks soon put them above it.
It was a long, but invigorating swim back to the surface.
The moment the three heroes stepped out of the bathyscaphe, Laciée appeared with a notepad.
“Ze readers, zey must know. Did you defeat ze necromancer?”
“We will release a statement.” Paladin’s voice was flat.
Chapton cleared his throat. Wildflower stepped in front of him before he got interviewed. “We are not at liberty to reveal our methods, I’m afraid.”
Laciee snapped her notebook shut. “Very well. What about Carriera’s imprisonment?”
“She’s been accused of theft and locked up. Kasita’s already heading back.” Laciee tipped her head at a raven-shaped speck on the horizon.
Chapton was in the air at once.
Vinnie whistled, and his horse appeared on the deck.
Wildflower raised their eyebrows. “Why have you got d’Ouvres here?” Wait. “How did you get d’Ouvres here?”
“It’s a new power. Jump on!” Vinnie followed his own advice, and offered Wildflower a hand up. The wrestler hesitated a moment before taking it.
D’Ouvres leaped out of the ship, hit the water at speed, and galloped over the waves.
As soon as they got to land, Wildflower dismounted and summoned their own steed: Jasper, the sabre-toothed tiger.
Carriera was being kept in the Navy prison on the docks; the same cell Rat Kid had been locked up in. When Kasita arrived, the elf was lying unconscious and covered in bruises, watched by a familiar-looking guard.
The prisoner groaned, and stretched out. “Wh —”
The guard jabbed her with the butt of her spear.
“What are you doing! Who told you to do this?” Kasita rushed to the side of the elf, and knelt down.
“The Council’s orders. She’s a dangerous criminal, like the last person you brought in. The shapeshifter.”
Kasita checked for a pulse. There, just. “That was an extremely exceptional case. This was never supposed to be standard procedure.”
“But I …”
Kasita sighed. “She won’t escape while I’m watching her. Stand back and let me work.”
They took out bandages, and sent a telepathic signal for Sylvanus to come quickly.
Chapton arrived on griffon-back, throwing up clouds of dust as he landed in the prison courtyard.
Only one cell had a guard outside it. “Stand aside!”
“Yes, High Magistrate.”
Inside, Kasita was still bandaging the elf.
“Wake her up.”
A splash of cold water didn’t help. Neither did smelling salts. Chapton didn’t mention the potion he was carrying — those were irreplaceable. Eventually Wildflower arrived with their healing wand.
With that, and Kasita’s ministrations, Carriera finally opened her eyes. “Elle m’apprende. Ze old lady, ze priestess d’Esdore.” The elf blinked. “I did not know she was so strong.” She took a long, halting breath, and patted the the side of her head. “Where is it? She must ‘ave taken it. Said I ‘ad stolen — ‘ad —” She coughed, and went silent.
“What was this? The multi-tool you had earlier?”
The elf nodded, weakly.
“Did you steal it?”
“It was — oui. But a long way from ‘ere, in ze realm of fire. From ze great inventor. Ze master, zey were zen.”
“This was Prometha?”
“Prometa? Elle n’existe pas. She is a myth, is she not?”
Wildflower rubbed their chin. “I’m guessing you didn’t get it from her, then. We heard some things recently that sounded like she might have given us gifts — powers to stop other gods.”
“Given? I ‘ave never ‘eard of such a thing. In all ze worlds, ze powers — zey were stolen, before ze city fell.”
“This city? Kathrakopolis falls in every world?”
“Always it starts. I ‘ave seen it start, many times. But always I go on before — before ze end. Soon, I would ‘ave gone from ‘ere.” She reached into her hair again, and withdrew her hand empty. “But not zis time. Not while she has my tool.”
If the high priestess of Esdore had taken Carriera’s multi-tool, the temple of Esdore was the place to look. Wildflower went north, to the bridge. Vinnie didn’t need to.
He rode straight across the swirling River of Shadows.
The river gave way beneath d’Ouvre’s shoes. Vinnie and his horse fell forward, into a a fluid that was more mist than water. They tumbled in a directionless grey haze, feeling nothing. Eventually, with an oddly-soft bump, Vinnie hit dry ground.
He stood up. He was on the far bank of the river, where the Temple of Esdore should have been; but the city opposite was not Kathrakopolis. Well, not exactly. The river, the Strix Peak, and the shapes of buildings were right. But they were all grey, blurred, and empty of people. Only the pillars above the city were in focus.
Vinnie’s gaze ran up one, to what should have been a clear blue sky. Instead, the space above the city was filled with shimmering hexagons, glowing with a diffuse grey light. In a few places, gaps in the pattern showed stark and black.
The largest of these was right over Vinnie’s head, above what would be the lone Swamp Pillar. In this world, though, there was a second tower alongside it. A tower of vague, grey shapes, almost symbols: a bed, a flower, a ladder, a tree. The stack shouldn’t have held together, but it rose clear twice the height of the Swamp Pillar — and higher, into the black void beyond the cracked sky.
A ladder? Now he looked at it, the whole thing looked like a ladder. The foot was only a stone’s throw away from Vinnie, where the Temple of Esdore should have been. He started climbing.
At the temple, a riot was in progress. Chapton joined Wildflower behind a crowd of elves, massed around the closed doors.
“What’s going on here?”
“Ze priests, zey ‘ave barred us from our temple. Zey have taken the tool of La Grand Fée.” The elf held up a neatly printed sign:
RESTORE OUR WORSHIP!
RESTORE OUR GOODS!
Chapton nodded politely. “I’ll talk to them.” He strode up to the doors, and knocked. “Open, for the High Magistrate!”
A young priest opened the door a crack. Chapton and Wildflower squeezed in, and the acolyte shut the door quickly. “High Magistrate. Captain of the Guard. What do you need?”
“Is the High Priestess here?”
“She’s out.” The acolyte’s voice quavered. “She went to see you at the boats.”
Wildflower nodded. “And the Carriera’s, the elf’s, multi-tool? Do you know what she did with that?”
“It is here.” The acolyte held out a brass object. Wildflower took it, weighed it in his palm, and passed it to Chapton.
The tool wasn’t heavy in Chapton’s hand, but it set his mind abuzz. Intricate machines, great engines, feats of craftsmanship: possibilities spread before him.
He slipped it into hammerspace, and shook his head to clear the sensation. “Jethan should look at this.”
“This great inventor from the Realm of Fire, could they use the roads you use? Could they come here?”
“Not —” Carriera rubbed her head. “— not sans the tool.”
“But the other elves can. How did they do it?”
“Zere are secret ways I — we know. But zey are not a thing of smith-craft, les routes des fées, the elf-roads. Zey could not do it, without.”
Lyssa Thane’s crew know nothing about the diving suit. A “sailor”, someone very petite, had come to clean it. But no sailor fitting that description existed.
All he could do now was write orders for an audience with the priestess, and wait for her to be found.
In the meantime, he and Jethan would look at this tool more closely.
Vinnie climbed the shape-ladder blindly, losing all sense of direction. Was he still going up? Down?
When the light grew around him, the thing he was climbing was green, rough, and it bent under his hands. A leaf. Below it another leaf, then another. And head-spinningly distant, below that, was a surface of irregular green patches.
Vinnie let go.
No fall could hurt him, and it would take far too long to climb down.
A feathered creature, larger than any bird he’d seen, circled the beanstalk. It spotted him drifting down, and flew closer. Then it screeched: a sound quite unlike a bird.
After a moment, he realised it was speaking Runic: “Who are you? From whence?”
“I’m a hero, from Kathrakopolis. Paladin.”
“Welcome, Paladin, to the World of Green. Where is this Kathrakopolis?”
“It is a city, on — ” Paladin paused. “On the other end of this beanstalk.”
“Aha! Do you bring news of the elves? It has been nearly one thousand years. Are they due back?”
“You mean I’m the first visitor in a thousand years?”
“Precisely! This is why I had to speak to you at once.” The creature brushed one wing past its head. “I am Quantal, by the way.”
“Pleased to meet you.” Vinnie fell in silence past another few leaves. “Say, Quantal, have you heard of the Twelve?”
“The Twelve? They don’t concern us here.”
“So this could be place of safety? If they should threaten Kathrakopolis, would it be possible for us to come here?”
“Perhaps.” Quantal back-winged, like a human leaning away from an uncomfortable thought. “But they must bring no fire here.” It bent its neck to look over one shoulder. “I must be going. There is something over there. Welcome to the World of Green.”
It was a very long climb back to the top of the beanstalk.