“We believe it can be done,” said Field Marshall Amberley.
They were back in the War Room. On the back wall, someone had hung a map of the border territories marked with roads, troop positions and telegraph cables. Dyrell and the four garrison cities in eastern Carrow had pieces of paper pinned beside them on which various statistics had been written, the paper grey where the pencilmarks had been erased and rewritten many times as new information came in. Guards stood beside the map, ready to arrest any unauthorised person who entered the room and got a glimpse of it.
“The risks would be great, of course,” added General Pavok. “The timetable of events we've worked out assumes that everything goes correctly, that there are no unpleasant surprises. A single Carrow carrier pigeon carrying news of what we're doing to the next army camp could spell disaster.”
The King nodded. “The most dangerous thing we can do is leave the Carrowmen to take the initiative,” he said. “Our only chance of survival is to do the unexpected, to knock them out of their carefully laid invasion plans.”
“This certainly has the merit of being unexpected,” said General Glowen. “If I were King Nilon, I would never expect us to do this! It's insane! To gamble the bulk of our army to this mad scheme, risking its total loss with every move...”
“We cannot win a war with Carrow unless we even the numbers,” said Amberley. “If we don't, we might as well surrender now. Is that what you suggest?”
“Of course not!” He turned to the King. “How are our relations with the Empire? Will they come to our aid if Carrow invades?”
“As matters stand at this moment, they are still committed by treaty to help us, but that is likely to change any day now. The sabotage of Kelvon production facilities continues. Carrow is still selling counterfeit machine parts to Kelvon’s customers and passing them off as ours. My advisors say that the Empire is days away from publicly denouncing us and withdrawing their offer of support. That's the only thing Carrow is waiting for. They will almost certainly launch a full scale invasion the very next day.” He turned to Amberley. “How soon can we carry out this plan?”
“Two days,” replied the Field Marshall. “We're lucky, our army is already right where we need it to be, on the border with Carrow. We just need time to reorganize it, scout out the countryside on their side of the border to make sure there are no nasty surprises waiting for us there. Fortunately, their army is almost entirely in their garrison cities. They can't position them along the border or throughout the countryside without tipping the Empire off on what they’re planning.”
He crossed the room to stand before the map and used his swagger stick to point to the red lines denoting telegraph cables. “We can send the engineers in at any time, but once they go we have no way to communicate with them. We have to tell them before they leave exactly when they’re to cut the telegraph cables, and once we do that we're committed to that timetable. We can't delay, we can’t reschedule if something unexpected happens. I recommend we leave dispatching them for as long as possible, to reduce the possibility of discovery.”
The King nodded again. “We'll have no way of knowing whether they've been successful,” he said.
“That's right, Majesty. We could attack Fastyke, destroy it with total success and then have our army totally destroyed at Salford because they had warning. And even if the line to Salford was cut successfully, that wouldn’t mean that the other lines were cut. Every army base we attack will be a leap into darkness.”
“Even if the telegraph lines are cut successfully, there are other ways to send messages fast,” pointed out Glowen. “Riders on horses, carrier pigeons...”
“Each base will be surrounded before we attack,” said Amberley. “We will have a ring of archers to take out any bird or rider that tries to leave. We’ll take all civilians we encounter in the surrounding countryside into custody, then use explosives to blow holes in the wall in multiple places. We go in fast, take the city before they know what's happening. Hopefully, we’ll be in complete control before they’re able to even think about getting a message out. By the time King Nilon knows what's going on, we'll have a hundred thousand Carrow soldiers either dead or prisoner. If he still wants a war with us, we’ll have a nice, level playing field. I suspect he'll look for a diplomatic settlement.”
“Suppose he does,” said Minister Daerden thoughtfully. “What do we do? Give him his men back? We'll be right back where we started!”
“Right,” agreed Pavok. “Dead is definitely preferable to taken prisoner!”
“We let them surrender if they want to!” said Leothan firmly. “We're not barbarians. We kill only to defend ourselves. Any prisoners we take, we keep. Forever. I'm sure we can find a use for them. Work camps and so on.”
“It’ll take a lot of men to guard that many prisoners,” pointed out Minister Larren. “Then we’ll have to organise their removal to Helberion. It could be several days before we're ready to march on the next city.”
“We march on the next city the very next day,” replied Amberley. “Every minute we delay increases the risk of word getting out of what we're doing. Disposition of prisoners will be the responsibility of the Auxiliary Brigades.”
“They're not capable of that kind of...”
“They'll have to be! This will only work if everyone steps up and does their part. The Auxes will take the prisoners back across the border, where their first job will be to build prison camps for themselves.”
“Those Above!” said Glowen. “So many things that can go wrong! If we really pull this off, it'll be a miracle!”
“This will be a battle unlike any we've ever fought before,” said General Lanier. “Unlike any battle since the fall of the Hetin folk, and even they may never have done anything like this! Normally, when you attack a city, you leave the defenders a line of escape. When the enemy sees they’re beaten you let them leave, because it’s the city you want. Territory, resources.”
Amberley nodded. “This time, it's the men we want, not the city. When the enemy finds there's no line of escape they'll have to decide whether they want to surrender or fight to the last man.” He looked at the map as if he could see thousands of terrified but heavily armed Carrow soldiers trying to decide now brave they were. “Could get messy,” he said.
“Messy or not, it has to be done,” said the King. “When would you advise we set things in motion?”
“I advise that we send the scouts in now, the engineers two days after that when the scouts report back. Then we send the army to attack Fastyke three days later.”
The King nodded again, then looked up at the map as if he could see thousands of men fighting and dying on it. If any of a thousand things went wrong, they could lose the main strength of their army. Carrow would be able to cross the border at leisure, citing their attack as justification, and Helberion would have nothing that could stop them. He felt the tension in the room, as tight as a bow string. Everyone was staring at him, waiting for his decision. He sensed hearts pounding, sweat beading on foreheads. None more so than his own. The decision that had to be made felt as heavy as a block of granite strapped to his back, and he forced himself to stand straight. He was King! He enjoyed all the pageantry and ceremony, the banquets and the cheering crowds, but this was what it really meant to be King. This moment. This decision. Thousands of lives, the fate of the Kingdom, all resting on him.
He took a deep breath. “Do it,” he said. “And may Those Above have mercy on us.”
The military men nodded grimly and filed out of the room, all tense with nervous energy. The Ministers followed, theirs eyes wide with fear and muttering under their breaths. Minister Daerden hung back for a moment, until he was alone with the King, then walked over to stand beside him. “I hope that wasn't the last command you give as King,” he said quietly.
“So do I, Minister,” replied Leothan, staring up at the map again. “So do I.”
They saw the column of smoke two days before arriving back at Mekrol. A thick pillar of elephantine grey whose source was lost beyond the horizon but which reached high into the sky before spreading out to cover the entire western horizon like a funeral shroud. There was the barest hint of movement as it rose, giving the impression of colossal size, and occasional flashes of lightning lit it from within making Malone and the Brigadier feel small and insignificant with its terrible power. The Brigadier guessed what it was immediately, but it wasn’t until they crested the last hill before the town of Tollbine that their fears were confirmed. During their absence the volcano had erupted, and everything within twenty miles was covered with a deep layer of fresh ash, still hot and smoking. The town was unapproachable. The ash was too hot to walk on, and the air was thick with acrid particles that burned their lungs and forced them to retreat.
Feeling sick with horror, they’d continued through Tollawen to the town of Faslich where, struggling to make himself understood with the few words of pennygab he knew, the Brigadier had learned that Parcellius' dig site had been near the centre of the area buried by ash. The archaeologist was missing, presumed buried somewhere in the ruins of the old city he'd been exploring.
There was a merchant in town who traded with the northern territories and who spoke nortine passable well. “Clearly, the people of Tollbine were lax in their sacrifices,” he told them. “The northern archaeologist angered the Gods with his digging, the townspeople failed to appease them sufficiently well and the Gods punished them appropriately. This is what you expect when you fail to give them their proper respect.”
“We saw them performing a sacrifice!” protested Malone. “They killed a man...”
The Brigadier put a hand on his shoulder and squeezed gently. “No doubt you are right,” he told the merchant. “We’re there any survivors?”
“One woman. A goat, only half human, barely able to speak. The child of a shopkeeper and his wife who’d sold logging supplies to the surrounding tree farmers. Too young and innocent to be blamed for the sins of her parents, which is why the Gods spared her. She told some fantastic story about Radiants. Clearly she was too shocked and traumatised to understand what was happening.”
“Could we speak to her?”
“She may be able to tell us whether Parcellius survived, and if he did, where we can find him.”
“The place where he carried out his profane work was buried and so was he.”
“We don’t know that. He may not have been there when it happened. We know he came here on occasion, to store artefacts and records...”
“They will be found and destroyed, to show the Gods that we revere and obey them!”
“Of course. But in the meantime, if we could speak to the girl?”
The merchant eventually agreed to translate for them, in return for a modest payment, and led them to the town's hospital where the girl was being cared for. The tale she told, faltering and hesitant and difficult to understand with her only half developed vocal chords, stunned the Brigadier and his loyal batman. Radiants had appeared, she told them. Hundreds of them, falling out of the sky like large, lethal snowflakes. They’d lashed out with curses that threw townsmen in their hundreds back to their former animal forms, while others were seized by their long, serpentine tentacles and pulled to pieces before the horrified eyes of their families. They’d chased down every last villager, pursuing them for miles across the open countryside. Only the goat girl had escaped, by hiding in a woodshed, and had only dared venture out a full day after the massacre.
“Radiants did that?” said Malone, appalled. “But I’ve never heard of Radiants behaving that way! They’re...”
“Just pretty creatures that drift across our cities like glowing clouds,” said the Brigadier bitterly. “Stately and serene. Carrying off the occasional fortunate Individual to be raised to a higher life, but it seems they have another side. A darker side.” The Brigadier’s lips were set in a thin, tight line and his eyes shone hard and cold like chips of ice. A shiver went down Malone’s spine as he sensed a burning conviction in the man, a sudden, fixed resolve that nothing in the world would deny. He’d only seen him like this once before, during a border dispute with Carrow, shortly after first coming into his service. There had been a battle, during which thirty of his men had been captured by the Carrowmen. The Brigadier had set out to find them, and had found them two days later, their hands tied and their throats cut. Butchered like pigs. He had spent the next six months searching for the officers who’d ordered the atrocity, ignoring all other duties and considerations, before finally catching up with them and executing them in the same manner as his men.
“They can make volcanos erupt,” said the batman, half to himself in awe at the power of the Radiants, half to the Brigadier, to remind him who he was declaring war on. It was well known in folklore that the Radiants could control the forces of nature. “It can't be a coincidence, that it erupted just after the massacre after having been dormant for centuries. They clearly made it erupt.”
“Yes,” said the Brigadier. “They’re higher life forms. What does that mean, though, to be a higher life form? The curator of the Hetin folk museum said they're more intelligent than us, that they have an insight into the world that we're not capable of, but I'm suddenly rather inclined to doubt that. We're more intelligent than the animals we adopt, and so we naturally assume that the Radiants must be more intelligent than us, but if that's so, why do they fear us?”
“They fear us?” said Malone in confusion.
“Oh yes, they certainly do. It's the only reason they'd do something like this. They're scared of something Parcellius discovered, or might discover, They’re scared of how we might react to the discovery, so they killed him, killed everyone in the town in case he'd shared the discovery with them. If they'd stopped there, just left the bodies lying, not caring who found them, that would be evidence of their confident superiority, but they didn't. They caused the volcano to erupt, to hide all evidence of their crime. If the goat girl hadn't escaped, we'd have no reason to think it hadn't been a purely natural disaster. Tragic, but unremarkable. Why go to the trouble of hiding the evidence unless they’re scared that we might fight back against them? They fear us. We could hurt them, if we rose up against them.”
“Could she be mistaken? Deluded? Maybe she even made the whole thing up. She's alone in the world now. I know better than anyone what that's like. To be orphaned, to face the possibility that you might spend the rest of your life in that in between state, never to be fully human. It makes you crave attention. You do anything, say anything, to make people want to be around you.”
“No, she was telling the truth. I'm sure of it. She could barely manage human speech, but she was struggling to make herself understood. She was desperate to warn us, to make us understand what Radiants are truly capable of.”
“But why now?” asked Malone. “Parcellius said he's been digging there for years. They ignored him all that time. Why...” His voice trailed off and his eyes widened with horror.
“Yes, they did it because of us,” said the Brigadier. “Because we went to their city asking questions. They’d have killed us as well if I hadn’t been a close friend of the King, if I hadn’t pretended to believe their lies and if the rest of the men hadn’t known we were going there. My death would have drawn too much attention, but Tollbine, out at the edge of the world... They didn't know we would come back here. They thought they could wipe the place off the map and no-one would notice, or care if they did.” He went to the window and stared out over the skyline, at the town buildings and the trees visible above the rooftops. There were a couple of Radiants up there, he saw. Tiny, bright specks, just visible at the limits of vision. The Brigadier fixed his gaze on them as if his eyes were the barrels of a gun. “But I care.”
He turned to the merchant. “The artefacts Parcellius sent here for safekeeping. We need to see them.”
“They will be destroyed, in case we too earn the wrath of the Gods.”
“You heard the girl. It wasn't the Gods who did this. It was the Radiants, unless the Radiants are your Gods.”
“Of course not! That is sacrilege...”
“Well then, it was not your Gods who destroyed Tollbine. It was the Radiants.”
“No! They are harmless beings! We all hope to be adopted one day, to be more than we are now. It is as your servant says, the girl craves attention. She made up the whole crazy story. It was the Gods who made the volcano erupt. It was Stellin, Mar-Coss, Lanon, venting their fury at the desecration of their forest, their failure to appease them sufficiently. Even now additional sacrifices are being prepared. Names will be drawn by lot...”
Malone began to protest, and the Brigadier once again had to silence him with a hand on his shoulder. “Your relationship with your Gods is your business, of course,” he said. “However, instead of destroying the artifacts, we would be willing to take them with us, back to Helberion. So long as they’re out of their territory, I'm sure the Gods will be just as happy.”
The merchant looked unhappy. “The wrath of the Gods might fall on you. We wouldn't want that on our conscience.”
“I'm sure it was the desecration of the forest that made them angry, as you say. If it was the artefacts that had angered them, they would have destroyed this town at the same time as Tollbine. The fact that they spared you shows that your possession of the artefacts is not offensive to them. The additional sacrifices you are planning are probably unnecessary.”
The merchant looked thoughtful. “You may be right,” he said. “Very well, I will speak to the Staret on your behalf, see if he would be willing to let you have them. He lives in the big hall at the end of the street.” He led the way, and Malone and the Brigadier followed.
With the merchant translating, the Brigadier had a long conversation with the Staret, and the elderly leader of the town eventually agreed to let them have the artefacts, or at least as many as they could carry. “The artefacts fill an entire storeroom,” the merchant told them. “You would need many wagons to take them all. The Staret says that you may pick and choose, though. Take what you want. Everything you leave behind will then be destroyed.”
“And the sacrifices?” asked Malone. “The additional sacrifices will not be carried out?”
“The Staret has decided that the additional sacrifices will proceed, just to be safe. We must assure the Gods of our piety, our remorse for the existence of this town and the way it marrs the beauty of the natural forest. Come, I will show you the way to the storeroom.” He bowed to the Staret. The Brigadier bowed as well, and gave Malone a warning glare until the batman also bowed. “They're going to kill people just in case their imaginary friends are angry with them!” said Malone as they filed out of the building.
“I don't like it either,” said the Brigadier, “but there's nothing we can do. If we make too much of a fuss, we're likely to end up as sacrifices ourselves.”
“So we're going to turn a blind eye to murder in order to protect ourselves? Then how are we better then them?”
“The first thing you learn as a soldier is to fight the battles you can win. Besides, this is their country, their culture. We have no business trying to impose our values on them.”
The storeroom contained boxes and crates containing thousands of dirty objects, not cleaned in case the process damaged some important detail, some vital clue that would have told them something important about the Hetin folk. Many of the objects were utterly mysterious. Containers that held discs that glittered when held up to the light. Others that held spools of tape visible behind a clear window. There were small objects about the size of a hairbrush, one face of which was entirely covered by small buttons, each bearing a tiny symbol. Things that seemed designed to be worn on the wrist like a watch but which had only a square of grey glass where the dial should have been. The Brigadier gave them only the briefest of glances before dismissing them. No doubt they held great secrets that would astound archaeologists one day, but they weren't going to solve them today.
He also ignored the tables covered by decorative ornaments, many of whish were in the form of human figures with the same strange anatomical differences they'd noticed earlier. There were toys and games, some very similar to those that Malone and the Brigadier had played with during the early stages of their adoption. Malone found what was very clearly a model train, although it was a different design to the steam trains he was used to and seemed to be made of a strange material he'd never seen before.
The Brigadier searched through the storeroom until he found what he’d been looking for. Books. Hundreds of them. Most of them contained nothing but text in the mysterious Hetin language and he put them reluctantly aside, but further along he found books with pictures, along with notes written in nortine where someone had been translating them.
“Parcellius taught the Hetin language to one of his assistants,” explained the merchant. “The poor chap spent week after week in here, painstakingly translating. There was one book... Just a moment.” He went through a door into a side room that the assistant had been using as an office. There on the table was a large but thin book, the outer covers of which were made of some flexible yet durable material. It looked as though the whole thing could be rolled up like a newspaper and tucked into a pocket.
“This is what the assistant was working on most recently. Apparently he grew more and more agitated as he translated, until eventually he jumped on a horse and went racing off to find Parcellius. That would have been around the time you were last here. The assistant probably found him shortly after you left. We assume they both died when the volcano erupted.”
The two northerners leaned forward to stare at the image on the front cover of the book. It showed a city, but a city unlike any they’d ever seen. Tall cities of glass reached towards the sky, and the wide streets were filled with carriages looking like metal beetles, but with no horses to pull them. People were staring into the sky, where a huge object loomed. It looked like a round, ridged fruit grown from some titanic plant, but the texture of its surface and the glow that suffused it like a silvery halo labelled it as unmistakeably Radiant in origin.
“What are those words?” asked Malone, pointing at some text above the image.
“Those top words are the name of this book,” the Brigadier replied. “The assistant was unable to translate it, apparently. There’s what looks like a date as well. Month and year. I would guess that this was a periodical. Subscribers would receive an issue once a month. These words at the bottom...”
“Yes?” asked Malone eagerly.
“The Brigadier’s eyes blazed with fury. “They say, ‘What do they want?’”