Chapter 1 - Leto
The city and the girl were the same. Both were orphans, both were conflicted, both were wrathful. Tonight the city could not sleep. All through fiery night, visions of loss and war haunted the city's dreams. It gasped and arose, had the nightmares been real? The desert wind threatened to engulf it with sand. The darkness left the ancient metropolis futureless, lawless; ruled by disorder that no civil place should ever know. The glorious courts, the glorious squares faded into the dusty plazas and soaring minarets that severed an ominous sky, churning with clouds of smoke. The gray storm roared, shook, and cracked the city and heaved in agony.
A silent creature draped in shadows arose from the wilderness and descended upon the sandy streets of wretched city never heard this force as it came in the night, its footsteps soft in the earth; nor felt it as it advanced, shifting upon the desert winds.
The being ran in the shadows. Like a hawk, it dived from lofty rooftops and floated like a vapor through the empty streets. it wound up a narrow corridor and onto a high garden terrace . It tore through the thick vegetation and clambered over a short jagged wall and came to a pathway. The winding path came to a dead end, and the being flew up a narrow, hidden staircase up to a dusty rooftop. The chilling winds enveloped it, and it stood upon that high precipice for several moments, surveying the cityscape.
The city seemed entirely empty. Soulless. Overturned carts and clutter filled the streets. No sound of life permeated the night.
Many miles across the decay, the creature saw it: a great castle, black and crumbling, covered in orange flames. Large black columns of soot and smoke rose upward, and long shadows were sent flickering and dancing across the empty faces of the buildings.
The creature stared at the castle for quite some time, and muttered something under its breath before dropping down to the cobbled street. The creature had hardly touched the cool pavement before it broke into a run towards the palaces with its robes flowing behind it. It swiftly turned corners and leaped over obstacles with a soundless grace. It disappeared into alleys, kept in the shadows, and leaped through fissures in the crumbling walls.
It came to a narrow alleyway and three other cloaked figures dropped behind it. It whirled around and drew its long iron blades. Two of the others drew blades of their own. The figures and the creature stood poised; locked in a silent battle of caution and observation.
A cat, having just slept through the long, warm evening arose, and jumped from its bed atop an old wooden box. It trotted across the floor to the old door that opened onto the street. It stretched and pushed against it. The sound of the opening door broke the figures' concentration, and they turned. In that moment of vulnerability, the creature, like a spring, swung its blades, and two of the figures fell to the ground, their steel helmets rattling on the pavement.
The third figure reached for its foil to attack the creature, but steely knives of the harshest, coldest temper and the evening torrid air reacted in a ringing frenzy of sound and light. The metal glided on the subtle currents of smoke and sliced through their dissipating tendrils. The ringing of the blades ended in a sharp, piercing cut through the breaking sinews. A spray of fluid escaped the irreparable anatomy of flesh and robes, and he fell back, to be struck again sharply in the chest by the ringing knives. The blades released the figure. The figure fell to the ground.
The creature, whose knives were stained with blood, approached the severed remains. It was wrapped completely in black cloth, and it knelt to slowly remove the steel visor. The face was scarred beyond recognition.
The creature took out a white cloth from its traveling robes and wiped the blood from its knives. It cleaned down the steel until the weapons shone like mirrors and dropped the stained rag on the slain wreck. It sheathed the twin knives and drew in a thin breath from the gloomy air. It looked around and then removed its own hood. To any passerby, it would have been strange to see this hooded assassin remove its disguise and reveal the face of a beautiful woman. But there was no one nearby except for the small yellow cat that came out from the shadows of the porch and walked over to this curiosity. But the woman was gone, down the alley toward the burning palace.
Rain began to batter her face as she ran. Everywhere, the shops and stalls of the city were empty, and as she drew closer to the castle she heard shouting. She stopped and listened. The voices were still too far off to make out what they were saying. She leaned against a stone wall and regained her breath. Her mind was throbbing. Her body was aching. She wiped the wet hair off of her face and stood back up. She had to go on. She had to get to the castle.
She was just about to run off again when there came a shout behind her and a massive shadow hurled her to ground.
"Stop right there!" came a man's voice, "You can't escape!"
She struggled but they twisted the net and she fell to the muddy ground. She tried to get to her knives but she couldn't move her arms. Half a dozen men stood around her.
"Finally!" shouted one of them, "we got one."
She looked through the dripping net and saw a tall man step out from the shadows. He had a rusted blade in his hand a wide brimmed hat on his gray head.
"What's your name, beast?" he demand. The woman struggled to her knees.
"Iduna," she gasped.
"It's a lady," someone cried.
The men looked shocked. The tall gray man shouted, "Get her out of there!" and two men came and cut away the netting. She struggled to rip the mesh off and regained her feet.
"Our apologies, madam," The gray man said, "We thought you were one of them."
Iduna looked confused. "One of whom? I only arrived in Leto tonight."
The men exchanged glances and the tall gray man motioned his hand towards an open wooden door. "Take her inside" he said.
In an instant, Iduna drew her swords.
"There will be none of that, madam," the man said, "It is dangerous for a woman to travel alone."
"What are you talking about?" Iduna said, "What happened to the city?"
The man frowned, "A lot has happened in the past few days. It is important that you hear about from us."
Iduna sheathed her swords and nervously followed the gray man through the doorway. They climbed up a dilapidated staircase onto a landing where the rain was pooling up from cracks in the ceiling. They walked along the corridor until they came to another room. Bits of broken plaster lay in piles and several dead rats were lying about. They came to another door and the gray man took out a large key.
"Now," the man said, "it isn't very tidy in here so please excuse the mess." He turned the key and swung the door open. The smell was terrible, but Iduna followed the man inside.
"Would you like a seat?" he asked, and Iduna noticed a short wooden stool in the corner covered in wet rags.
"Oh, you can just throw those on the floor, Rufus will clean those up," the gray man said.
Iduna obeyed then asked, "Who is Rufus?"
"Well, that's me," said another short man with red hair, "I'm Rufus Vestis! And I'm smart as a weasel with no hair cut!"
He reached out his hand and Iduna shook it while managing a smile.
A big black cat climbed up on her lap and Iduna jumped.
"That's just Annie," laughed the gray man, "she's kind of our mascot."
The cat smelled Iduna then immediately hissed and dug her claws into Iduna and sprung away.
Iduna looked around puzzled, "Who are you people?"
The gray man looked embarrassed, "I'm sorry. My name is Gunnar, and we are all a gang of petty criminals." The men laughed and Annie, the cat, started howling.
Iduna looked around frantically.
"Don't worry, you're safe here," he said, "What do you say I get you a drink?"
"What am I doing here?" she demanded. "You said you thought I was one of them. Who were you talking about?"
The man smirked and went to a large barrel and brought back a wooden cup filled with a watery looking stuff. "Sow milk and water," Gunnar said and grunted as he laughed.
"Do you drink this?" Iduna said placing the cup on the floor.
"Every damned day," Gunnar said, bending down and picking up the cup. "We're simple street vermin, my lady, our sows are all we got!" He drained the glass and sat down on a settle. "Before I tell you anything," He said in a serious tone, "I have to know who you are, and if I can trust you."
Iduna leaned back against the wall. "My name is Iduna Wednesbury," she said, "and I only just arrived in Leto tonight. I have spent the last three years in Trinovant."
"Where's that?" asked Gunnar.
"It is a city built on the cliffs of the Western Ocean. I was studying philosophy."
"Well that sounds like a waste of time," laughed Gunnar.
"I also studied law," Iduna said.
"Law!" Gunnar laughed, "You came to the wrong town if you want to exercise your politics. Maybe in Trinovant they still have kings and courtiers; in Leto, it's just kill or be killed. Political power grows out of the sword."
"I am aware of this, Mr. Gunnar," she snapped. "I have lived in Leto for many years, and I was certain a little wisdom could be put to good use." She drew a deep breath then brushed the hair out of her face, "I was just returning home when you threw a net on me."
"Home?" he asked. "Where is that?"
"The old castle," she said, "I am a member of the knighthood, which resides there."
The men all stood up at once.
"What is it?" she asked seeing their startled looks.
Gunnar spoke softly, "It was just a week ago when they first appeared in this district. Where they came from--I don't know. But, I think they came in from the deserts. Like a sandstorm they surrounded the palace."
"Who are they?" she asked. "I saw the glow of flames as I entered the city. What has happened to the palace?"
"They broke into the palace the day before yesterday." Gunnar said, "The knighthood you belonged to doesn't exist anymore; they killed everyone and set fire to everything. We don't know who they are or why they came here," He said. "They've been patrolling this corner of the District. They started harassing us after they gutted the palace. Asking questions. Odd questions. Started killing people and burning down apartments when they didn't get answers."
"We're not even sure if they're really people," said another tall man, "They can run like horses and eat meat raw."
"We took two of our sows that wandered away last night," Rufus said, hanging his head.
Iduna leaned back in the seat and eyed Gunnar.
Gunnar shook his head "I know it's odd," he told her, "They dress in black and carry long steel knives."
"Yes," said Iduna nodding, "I ran into three such men earlier tonight."
"And you lived?" Rufus gasped in amazement.
"Yes," Iduna laughed, thinking she was answering an obvious question.
"Then you are an admirable fighter," Gunnar said. "We have lost several friends to them. We were hoping to capture one alive, that way we could ask the questions – you know, find out where they all came from and what exactly they are after."
"Whoever they are," said Rufus, "They sure do have fancy steel." The man looked at his own sword, which Iduna could tell, was homemade and almost completely rusted.
The room was silent for a few moments until Iduna stated, "I must go back"
"To Trinovant?" Gunnar said.
"No, to the palace!" Iduna said, "If anyone there is still alive I must help them. And if not then I must keep these --" she looked for the word "-- these raiders from looting what is left of the Emperor's treasury."
"There's as much hope in that as there's ham in a tulip!" exclaimed Rufus, "That place was shelled out. They burnt everything and left no one."
"There are extensive catacombs beneath the castle," she said, "It is possible survivors may be down there."
Gunnar shook his head, "Even so, there is no way you could get to the castle by yourself. It is still surrounded by hundreds of them."
She stood up and drew out her knives, "I can try. As a knight of the Amarantine Order, it is my duty to protect the estate of our late Emperor."
Gunnar rolled his eyes, "Late Emperors don't need any protecting, madam," he laughed, "They're already dead. And he isn't using that castle anymore."
"Then you can come with me." She said, "I could use some help, and a dozen fighting men would be useful."
"That's ridiculous! You're talking about suicide," Gunnar cried, "against an unknown enemy! Against who knows how many unknown enemies! And for what? For who?" Iduna turned around to leave. Gunnar got up but then turned around and spat on the floor. "I brought you in here so you wouldn't be killed! You're free to go if you'd like! Why should I worry?" Gunnar shouted, "of all the things in this city to care about, why should I care about you!" Iduna hopped over a dead rat and went out onto the landing. Gunnar stood in the room with the other men.
"I can offer you treasure," she said, turning around to the small dirty room, "I know where all the secret vaults are, and the Emperor was a rich man."