Mark the ruins on the Horn of Oridos: the great Prosekhal, southernmost, crowning the tip of the Oridosi peninsula as it rises above the calm waters of the Inner Sea. And inland, the firstsun to the Prosekhal’s moon, stood the Derukammer—the parliament of the ancient city-state of Oridos, once the seat of the imperial diet that upheld the sovereignty of the Elimannen Empire of old.
Nothing but shattered stone, now, but of old they stood high and strong and immortal, the seat of power and the setting for the accomplishments and conflict of ages.
Such were Thijis’ thoughts as he walked beneath the streets of the city center, beneath the current, more modest houses of parliament and the Protector’s palace, beneath the joint facility that served both the Sheriff of Oridos and what remained of the Knights Prosecutor. A life in old stone, told one block at a time.
The Undercity was large but strangely quiet in these parts. The pipe in the Forge he’d come in through was a little known entrance—possibly unknown to any but Thijis himself, as he’d never known anyone else to use it. If you headed roughly north (a compass being a necessity in the Undercity), you’d find the outskirts of the great black market that Warreners called Fouler’s Fair (Warreners being an incomparably witty lot—or so they’ll tell you). Thijis had avoided it scrupulously, staying to the lower tunnels and the catwalks over the sunken canals, easing himself south toward the promontory.
The Derukammer was a great square edifice with half-ovate wings on each side and a great cupola atop it. The aboveground levels were dominated by the council chamber and associated offices, at least from what historians were able to make from the ruins that were left of it. It existed in popular memory, an oral history, no more than the traceries of a foundation left. Its stone had likely been scavenged and used in the construction of innumerable houses in the surrounding districts after the Rehabitation.
But beneath its bulk lay its foundations and basements, the sublevels that had served variously as treasuries, meeting chambers, and dark settings for less savory activities. These still stood, built into the bedrock, now a part of the Undercity that had become the beating heart of Oridos.
Thijis found himself staring at the entrance to the arched hall that sat directly beneath where the main council chamber had been, and deliberately pricked the swell of these thoughts with a pin of pragmatism. He could, and had, spent hours distracted by the stuff of the city’s history, and had no time for it now.
Sighing, he weighed Helg’s key in his palm. It was heavy and brass, filling out his hand. Below the deepest dungeon, the old man had told him, below all that is or was holy and all that may be again, lies their great secret. A secret which, if the doktor could be believed, might very well unravel the city-state of Oridos and the land she used to rule.
He went down again. Down a spiral staircase, hewn out of the stone by ancient hands using methods lost to time, past three landings opening out onto claustrophobic halls where few feet had stepped in the last five centuries. Past archives and storerooms and armories; past dungeons and walls and holding pens; and finally past a long low level of walled-off passageways that might beckon even the most cautious explorer.
The attitude towards this part of the city, and its underground analog, was strange: it was as if by unspoken consent, the vast majority of Oridosi stayed clear of it. Even the criminal element wanted nothing to do with it, or so it seemed. Men whispered, of course—drunken conspiracies shared over ale at the Tribe or the mindless chatter of apprentice confidence men waiting for a mark to leave the house. Some used the word “curse,” while others preferred to talk of ghosts; still others made up stories out of whole cloth about unwritten laws passed by Mother and her predecessors, banning the use or occupation of this not-insubstantial section of cityscape to the masses.
The average Oridosi only saw the ruins of the Derukammer, or of the Prosekhal, her neighbor, once a year, if they attended the festivities surrounding Rehabitation Day. And then only from aboveground. The Horn had an eerie reputation, complete with stories of people gone missing, of hauntings, and of disturbing thoughts suffered by those who lingered there.
All utter bullshit, of course, which ignored the fact that the area would need quite a bit of rebuilding and renovation before it would be usable as anything other than a fanciful fairground. At street level it was a barren scree of low walls and broken tower rings, leading off to the edge of the cliffs. The paving ends precipitiously at the point, where part of the Horn has fallen away, lost presumably in the same cataclysm that took the buildings themselves. The Undercity levels were moldy and dank, washed by the corrupting salt winds off the Inner Sea hundreds of feet below. Hardly the most comfortable place to conduct even the grimmest of endeavors—especially when you had to worry about the possibility of supernatural perils, as well.
That all being said, there was of course the notable fact that the Derukammer ruins lay a stone’s throw from the Sheriff’s headquarters. Above or below ground, there was such a thing as pushing your luck.
The staircase ended in a dismal, grimy room little bigger than Thijis’ flat, a place seemingly intended more for deep storage, or even simple drainage, than an actual habitable chamber. It was here Helg had directed him, and here where Thijis would discover once and for all whether he’d been taken for a fool.
The walls were rough stone, unfinished. One wall ran with a thin sheet of cold water, which started near the ceiling and vanished into a crack near the floor. In the corners of the room a pale glow announced the presence of some tenacious fungus, tortured into providing its own light in the depths.
He searched almost a quarter-hour before finding the keyhole. It was a simple slot cut into the stone, which one would be forgiven for mistaking for a simple chip or divot. Thijis had to dig out a few fingernails’ worth of slime and dirt before he could fit the business end of the key inside.
If he’d expected some kind of dramatic reveal—a cleverly concealed panel sliding back into the wall, driven by some cunning ancient machine—he was disappointed. The key turned, he heard what perhaps was a dull click somewhere deep in the stone, and that was it. He stood, grinding his teeth in frustration, ready to snap the shaft of the damn thing in the keyhole and leave it there. But then he felt a whisper of breeze in what should have been a relatively airless cell. Putting his nose to the corner of the wall, near wear the keyhole was found, he sniffed: a staleness, the dead smell of bad air.
Pulling a kerchief from his belt, he tied it behind his neck and drew it over his mouth and nose, hoping he wasn’t about to wander into a pocket of killing gas. Shrugging for the benefit of no one at all, Thijis kicked the wall just below the keyhole with everything he had.
Rather than breaking his foot, as he’d been afraid it might do, the wall moved, scraping back a few scant inches, leaving a noticeable shelf of dead moss and caked on dirt behind it, standing off the floor. Putting his shoulder to it, he pushed, digging his boots into the uneven floor and grinding the thing backward until it could go no further.
The stale air overwhelmed him and for a brief moment, he couldn’t breathe. He stepped back into the staircase chamber, took a breath, and waited; when he tried again it was more manageable. How long had it been since this was opened? It might have been a thousand years, for all he could tell.
What he saw inside made him laugh. After a short, crumbled landing, the spiral staircase continued downward. He was becoming more than accustomed to anticlimax. This time, though, his descent was blessedly short: he circled the central column only twice before coming to a dead end. No chamber like the one above here, only a wall of the same rough-cut stone where the steps ended.
But there was, he ascertained after a few moments’ search, another keyhole.
After a similarly grueling workout getting it open, Thijis was surprised to see light that was not from his lantern. He stepped through the second stone door, coming out of a short, arched tunnel, and into a much larger space.
Drawing back his kerchief, Thijis looked up to find himself swimming in a sea of gold.
* * *
Standing amidst the glow of it felt like floating. The air itself seemed buoyant, crackling with energy that Thijis could feel running across his skin, prickling the tiny hairs on his arms and shoulders and neck.
Both his own suspicions, formed from the inevitable turning of his obsessive mind, and Keynish Helg’s meandering account of his life had led him here, but neither had prepared him for the sight of it. He stood amidst the wealth of the world—more, really—the wealth of many worlds, if you believed the more metaphysical theories that scientists put forward about the stuff. It was enough to take his breath away.
Stretching out before him, packed and sorted into rank after rank of stone shelves that stood four times the height of a man, was a horde of elekstone the likes of which the world had never seen. He could have bought Oridos with it, many times over; bought the whole of Westalen, in fact. With this a person could build a fleet to cross the sea and explore the legendary eastern continent, lost to the turbulence of the Abyd Ocean and the slow decay of history. With this, a man could change the world.
His mouth felt dry, and he suddenly wished he’d brought a canteen with him. The glowcoal did indeed glow, and apparently all the more so when brought together in great amounts. No other light was required in the great chamber.
He walked into the nearest aisle, looking around in wonder at the riches surrounding him. A chunk the size of his fist could set him and everyone he cared about up for life—in style—and the lowest shelves alone were stocked with slabs and beams of the stuff. Further down the aisle he saw small boulders of it, glowing from within as if a fire had been lit inside them.
This was more than even the companies in the Forge could dream of. The great steam generators they ran were fed with bricks of elekstone protected like the emperor’s ransom they were, each of which produced enough energy to power the city’s industry for a month. How was it that a veritable world economy in commodities was sitting in storage in a secret cellar?
The nodes of this case had been laid out before him now; he had the parts he needed to construct an explanation. This amount of wealth—it was a motive for anything. Murder. Genocide.
Helg’s story had been somewhat vague on the present status of this trove, focusing primarily on the man’s youth, but he’d known the names Orban, and Tolvaj, and Hevrany. Oh yes, he knew Hevrany.
Thijis didn’t know the details of the scheme yet, but it almost didn’t matter. This amount of wealth could easily be an end in itself. But more important than seeing it was proving it, and his word was as good as the scum on his boot when it came to going up against men like the Sheriff and his spymaster. And from the doktor’s rambling diatribe he had heard a word that stood out to Irik beyond all others: records. Down here, in the dark, were records, most likely in the form of books, a set of histories that purportedly went back hundreds of years, an ongoing journal of the use and storage of this substance in the city. That was what he needed to get his hands on. That was what he could use to prove that the Sheriff was complicit in not only the greatest theft that Oridos—or the world—had ever known, but more importantly the lives of some seventy-odd young people in Helg’s basement.
The old man, much like the core of the secret Thijis was prodding at, was still an enigma to him. The tale of his life was far from an innocent one; in fact, it centered on, in many ways, one of the more grievous crimes Thijis had heard of. But the bodies in the basement were not Helg’s doing. Not his alone, anyway. And what Thijis did know suggested that there was a level of corruption at the heart of Oridos that would surprise even the most jaded heart.
Reaching into an open crate of loose elekstone crystals nearby, he selected a faceted knob about the size of his thumb and bounced it on his palm. Elekstone had a weight that belied its size; it seemed as dense as lead in his hand. For a long moment temptation warred with protocol in his mind, and temptation: he slipped the gem into his trouser pocket, his palm buzzing with potential energy as he released it. It wasn’t for the money, though he might buy a house in some neighborhoods of Oridos for the value of the lump in his pocket. It was evidence, if only for himself. He’d been here. This existed. He’d seen it. And he looked forward to having the opportunity to study a piece of elekstone in the privacy of his own lab. No one will miss it, he thought, looking up at the stuffed shelves around him.
Making his way down the glowing towers of phirotic energy, the crackling only increased, to the point where he would have turned around and fled the increasing throb across his skin if he could have. There was nothing along the wall he’d come in by, so he headed for the opposite one, hoping that whatever records were to be found would be located there.
His hopes were rewarded: against the far wall he found an archway, wider than the one through which he’d entered, leading to another chamber. There were no doors here, merely an opening, and as he stepped through he saw what looked like an old desk and several chairs, as well as an aging wood stove, its rusted chimney pipe disappearing into the stone ceiling above.
It was the bookshelves against the far wall that held his attention, though: two bookcases, side by side, in wood that had seen better days. There weren’t nearly as many as he’d imagined. One of them held a single, tumbled row of what looked like old ledgers, the other two shelves of leather bound books. The whole place was thick with dust and the scummy grime that accumulated in the deep places underground.
He did notice, however, another archway leading off into darkness, beyond where the elekstone glow could penetrate. There were footsteps in the dust near the doorway. Not used often, then, but someone had been down here recently. Turning back to the bookcases, he selected one of the leather tomes at random and slid it out.
It stuck a bit, but then released; the leather felt oddly dry and gave strangely beneath the pressure of his hand. He turned it over and opened it, suddenly choking at the mouthful of dust that came out of it in a cloud. Before he could so much as make out a single line of the script within, the guts of the book sloughed out of the binding and scattered like dry leaves, dissolving into dust before his eyes.
How…? It took ages for a well made book to decay that much. Centuries. Suddenly panicking, he took down another volume and opened it to the same result: a sudden implosion of dust and paper flakes. One after another, he checked each book, pulling them down off their shelves and watching them dissolve. The thinner ledgers from the other shelf crumbled as soon as he touched them, their paperboard bindings as fragile as cobwebs.
He must have made a sound of frustration, because it was only then that he heard a low, knowing chuckle emerge from the darkness within the far archway. Spinning on his heel, Thijis reached for his gun and managed to clear leather before a heavy body slammed into his chest, knocking him back into the bookcases. He felt the wood give beneath their weight, the bookcases tumbling down like the shell of a rotted log.
He struggled, but only for a moment: in the powdery dust he made out a second shape, and before he knew too burly men had him by the arms, hoisting him to his feet and securing him as tightly as a pair of shackles.
“Ah, Mr. Thijis,” said a familiar voice. “I’d say ‘we meet again,’ but I’m not one to give in to unnecessary cliché.” Tolvaj strode out of the shadows of the far archway, a smirk on his face that Irik would like to have wiped off with a knuckleduster.
“The elekstone, you see,” said Tolvaj, spreading his arms elegantly and gesturing around them. “Even with only ambient exposure, its preservative powers are truly extraordinary. I’d told my men for months to avoid that little vignette you just destroyed. I thought it a curious and beautiful still life. A view into the past. You wouldn’t have found anything of interest in those books even if you could have read them, by the way. Some ancient bookmaker’s accounts, perhaps, or old maintenance logs.”
“Surprised to see you getting those shining boots dirty down here, Tolvaj,” said Thijis, hating himself for the weak barb even as it passed his lips.
“I do admit,” Tolvaj continued, “that I thought you’d be smarter than this. Your reputation as a detective preceded you. The possibility that you might discover our little treasury had occurred to me, but the idea that you might come down here, alone, without making any preparations for your capture, seemed too good to be true.” He smiled. “I prepare for all eventualities, of course, however idiotic they may seem.”
“Who says I didn’t prepare for this?” Tolvaj only pursed his lips sardonically. “And what about the eventuality of all this blowing up in your face?” Thijis asked. “Are you prepared for that?”
“Eminently,” responded Tolvaj. “Though I think you’ll find that the ability to purchase a continent can solve most problems one might be presented with. And if this is supposed to be the part where I reveal the details of my nefarious plan, I’m sorry to disappoint you.” Tolvaj nodded sharply, and the thug on the right side of Thijis, whom he hadn’t even gotten a good look at yet, clubbed him over the back of the head.
* * *
Not the head. Not the bloody head.
He woke to find himself being dragged over a grassy swale, the two thugs holding him under the arms. He wished he could tell if they’d broken the back of his skull. That’s three times in two days. The thug’s sap had awoken the pounding headache that he’d just gotten over; the pressure in his head was so bad that he could feel it behind his eyes. It was hard to see. He heard the two men grumbling, but couldn’t make out the words.
Where…? Long, tangled grass, unclipped, and the occasional chunk of broken masonry. The ruins? He forced his head up and looked around. They weren’t in the ring of the Derukammer—there, a curving shard of wall, thick and dark, jutting out of the ground above and behind them. He looked forward, noticing for the first time the grade of the land. They were walking downhill. The Prosekhal. They’d taken him out to the tip of the Horn, the very point of Oridos, the oldest and most precarious of the abandoned ruins.
They reached the bottom of the gentle, grassy slope and deposited him at the edge of a flat space paved with heavy stone slabs. Perhaps thirty feet in front of him, the stone patio fell away, its crumbled edge jutting sharply out over empty sky.
“I’m afraid this is where we must say goodbye, Mr. Thijis,” said Tolvaj’s voice. Thijis saw his slim form silhouetted against the light of the twin suns, now high in the clear sky. The Undersheriff flipped a stray lock of raven hair out of his eyes and smiled, for all the world seeming like he really was bidding an old friend farewell. “Your exploits, as entertaining as they’ve been, have begun to be a nuisance. And I have other things to attend to. Do it.” This last to the Specials, the thugs, holding him up.
Tolvaj walked another few steps forward, then stopped, watching as the other two dragged Thijis across the paving stones. Their intention, hardly vague since the moment he’d awoken, suddenly crystallized, and Thijis began to struggle violently. He kicked one in the shin, producing only a sharp grunt, and tried to bite the other’s hand, which got him a fist to the face. His head felt like a split grape, and he was fairly certain one of his teeth was loose.
There is a moment of denial before death. Just as it becomes clear that one’s life is about to end, the brain shuts down, refusing to process the data presented to it: surely not me. I cannot die. This is something that happens to other people, not Irik Thijis. He’d figure a way out of it. He’d grab a root, or break free just as they got to the edge, pushing his captors over instead of him. As these implausible thoughts pass into impossibility, the mind turns to the truly fantastic: he would survive the fall. The surface of the Inner Sea, hundreds of feet below, would not break him. He would pierce the water like a jumping fish, dive below, graceful, and swim to the surface for a breath of briny air.
And then his boot soles were balancing on the edge of the stonework and he could see the the sheer drop below him, and time seemed to stop. The Wall is straight, and almost true: a vertical pitch of cliff face perched an absurd height above the lapping turquoise waves of the Inner Sea. He felt himself being pushed, felt his center of gravity shift, and then he was falling, all thought behind him.
His heart hammered in his chest and he felt a buzzing sensation, not unlike the prickling that radiated from the elekstone horde, as his brain futilely tried to compensate for the deathly fear that flooded through his system. The surface of the water grew closer, and he felt a warmth, like he’d pissed himself.
For a few pleasant seconds, Thijis felt like he was floating again, drifting in an amber sea, a sea that suffered fools.
And then everything went white, and the world ended.