“There were two survivors,” the telegraph operator said, reading from the page torn from his pad. “Andrea McCrea herself and one of her assistants, Thomas Shanks. Both suffered serious burns, and in addition McCrea suffered a number of injuries consistent with a hard impact with a solid object. They are expected to recover, eventually.”
“A Radiant attacked them?” said the other telegraph operator. Leothan thought his name was Will or something. He seemed to remember the chief operator calling him that once. “But, but, they never do that! Never!”
“They do now, it seems,” said the chief operator, continuing to read back what he'd written just before sending the urgent message to the King. “The body of a Radiant was found in the laboratory, almost completely destroyed. Only a few fragments of its longer tentacles were recognisable for what they once were. The rest was just charred meat.”
“They must have botched getting Barlowe out,” said Princess Ardria, who'd come with the King. “He got suspicious, the Radiant he was communicating with came to rescue him...”
“Rescue him?” said the chief telegraph operator. “I don't understand...”
“The Radiants are plotting to destroy human civilisation,” said Leothan. There seemed little point trying to keep it secret any longer. “There are humans helping them. Adams Valley was working on a weapon to use against them. Is Barlowe dead?”
“Doesn't say,” the operator said. “It just says only two survivors. I assume that means that all the others are accounted for, which means dead. Including Barlowe.
The King nodded. “Where are McCrea and her assistant now?”
“Adams Hill hospital.” The telegraph machine began clicking again and the operator began writing. “Unless it’s related to Adams Valley, cut them off,” the King ordered. “I need more information about the attack.”
“It's from the same person,” the operator said, though. “More details.” There was an agonising wait for the message to finish, and the King paced up and down the small room impatiently. “Some animals were found wandering the building,” the operator said, “and some discarded military uniforms were found near the site of the fire...”
“They were cursed back to their animal forms,” said Ardria. The King nodded. “Were McCrea or her assistant affected by the curse?” he asked.
The assistant picked up the torn out page from the pad, scanned his eyes over it. “Just says burns and other injuries,” he said. “Maybe they were both already unconscious. You have to be conscious for a curse to work on you.”
The King nodded. It was common knowledge. “I want them guarded!” he said. “Agents of the Radiants may make another attempt to kill them. And I want to talk to the doctor treating them. Get her to the telegraph room as soon as humanly possible.”
The operator nodded and began sending the message. “The hospital and the telegraph office are only a few hundred yards apart,” said Leothan. “It shouldn't take long for them to get her there.”
“So we wait,” replied the Princess. Leothan nodded and resumed his pacing.
It was five minutes before the telegraph machine began clicking again. “Doctor Phillipa Green is in the Adams Hill telegraph office,” the operator said.
“Good,” said Leothan. “I want to know what condition her two patients are in. Tell her to be brief. I don't want a list of every bruise and laceration. I want to know whether they can talk, how soon they'll be able to get back to work.” The operator nodded and began tapping on the contact.
“This is infuriating!” said the King to his daughter as they waited. “I wish I were there, or they were here, so we could have a proper conversation! Having to wait like this every time I want to ask a simple question!” Ardria began to reply and her father held up a finger to cut her off. “I know, I know!” he said. “If not for the telegraph, someone would have to make a three day carriage ride before we could talk at all! The telegraph is a miracle, I know that! I just wish it could be a bit more of a miracle, enough for us to be able to talk normally!”
“Perhaps that'll be Andrea’s next invention, when she's perfected the Radiant weapon,” said Ardria with a smile. “Voices sent over wires.”
Leothan began to reply, but was cut off when the telegraph began clicking again. The operator began writing down each letter as the machine clicked it out, and the King came forward to read over his shoulder. “McCrea deeply unconscious. Maybe for days. Shanks remains conscious, able to speak. His injuries should not preclude the dictation of instructions to assistants.”
The King nodded his pleasure at the news, but Ardria was frowning. “He remains conscious?” She said. “Does that mean he was never unconscious?”
“Possibly,” said Leothan. “So what?”
“If he was conscious, why didn't the curse affect him?”
“Perhaps he wasn't there when the Radiant cast the curse. He may have been elsewhere in the building and arrived afterwards.”
Ardria nodded thoughtfully. “Yes, that must be it,” she said. She didn't look convinced, though, and Leothan gave her a look until she continued. “Well, it’s just that Radiants can cast as many curses as they like, in quick succession. It requires almost no effort from them. It's one of the things I learned while I was becoming one of them. So why didn't it cast another curse when he arrived? I presume he ignited the hydrogen it uses for lift, that it was leaking, perhaps from bullet wounds. If he had something hot or burning in his hand, it would have gone to any lengths to prevent him getting close.”
“Perhaps he sneaked up on it.”
“They can see in all directions, you can’t sneak up on them.”
“Well, there must be some explanation.” A disturbing thought came to him. “If he did catch just a trace of a curse, it can affect just the mind, not the body. Isn't that right? I seem to remember someone telling me that once.” He turned back to the telegraph operator. “Tell the doctor to give me an exact description of his condition, mental as well as physical.”
The operator did so, and they waited for the answer to come back. “Cannot say more without violating doctor, patient confidentiality,” he said.
“I’m the King!” roared Leothan, making the operator wince in fear. Leothan moderated his tone. It wasn't this man's fault. “Please remind her that I am the King, and that I can demand any information I want. She'll tell me or she's committing treason... No, leave that last bit out. Just tell her that it’s the King asking.” The operator nodded and tapped the key.
“The man's intelligence and technical knowledge seem to be intact,” he read a couple of minutes later. “However, we discovered while treating him that he has a few physical deformities. They are minor, not severe enough to prevent him from leading a normal life.”
“What kind of deformities?” He'd met the man once, he remembered. He didn't remember seeing any deformities, but then he hadn’t really been looking.
“Thomas Shanks has some extra appendages in the pelvic region. A tube of flesh that he urinates through, and a sack of skin behind it that contain two small organs that appear to be glands. He also has two small circular regions of coloured skin on his chest, with raised regions in the centre. They don’t appear to perform any function.”
Leothan and Ardria had stopped listening some time ago, though, and were staring at each other in astonishment. “Those Above!” gasped the princess. “He's a member of the Hetin folk!”
Before the King could reply, the room lurched beneath them and they were thrown from their feet to land sprawling to the ground. Everything shook like a wet dog, and there was a terrible rumbling so low that they felt it in their bones more than heard it. Equipment and code books were thrown to the ground and lumps of ornate plasterwork from the ceiling fell around them, smashing to pieces as they hit the tiled floor. The shaking went on and on, and Leothan gestured for his daughter to take shelter beneath the table as the air filled with dust and cracks opened up across the walls and ceiling.
“Earthquake!” said the senior telegraph operator, curled into a ball on the floor with his hands over his head. “We’ve never had an earthquake here before!”
“The Radiants?” asked Ardria, putting a hand to her face where a small trickle of blood was running from her brow.
“Has to be!” replied the King. “The timing can't be a coincidence! We're under attack!”
The door opened, and Balhern of the palace guard stood there with three guardsmen, steadying themselves against the doorframe. “Your Majesty!” he said. “We have to get you to a place of safety!”
“The only safe place during an earthquake is outdoors,” said Leothan, though, “and there'll be Radiants! Tell the guard to use the incendiary ammunition! Aim for their gas sacks! Don't let them get close enough to cast curses!”
He staggered towards the door, across a room that was still shaking, holding his hands up to ward off pieces of brick and plaster that were still falling from the ceiling. “Where are you going?” asked Ardria.
“Take the Princess to the basement!” ordered Leothan. “Take the east passage, it avoids all the external windows.”
“The dungeons are closer,” said Balhern, though, “and they're carved out of solid rock!”
“Okay, the dungeons then.” Balhern nodded and gestured for the Princess to come with him.
“Where are you going?” repeated the Princess.
“To take command of the palace’s defence. Go with Balhern!” The Head Guard took her gently by the arm. She resisted at first, staring fearfully after her father as he took the three guards with him to the armoury, but then she reluctantly allowed herself to be taken through the door and along the corridor.
Bowen and Stephanie, the royal children, had both fled at the first tremor of the earthquake and were now cowering under a display cabinet containing a selection of the finest Letvian porcelain. That porcelain was destroyed as a heavy silver framed mirror fell from the wall directly into it, but although fragments of glass were showered everywhere the children were unharmed. “Stay there!” the Queen shouted at them as fragments of plaster rained down from the ceiling and the windows shattered. Lady Dwen threw her hands over her head and curled up into a whimpering ball until Lacurnia took her firmly by the arm and pulled her towards the table. “We have to take shelter!” she shouted. “It'll be over soon!”
“I didn't know you had earthquakes in Helberion!”
“We don’t. Or at least, nothing like this!” There was the occasional minor tremble, enough to rattle the cutlery and bring the occasional roof tile down to smash in the street, but this kind of major event was unknown north of Wilterland. She looked across at the display cabinet and was reassured to see two pairs of terrified eyes beneath it staring back at her. “Stay there, sweeties!” she called across at them. “Stay right where you are!”
A guard appeared in the doorway, steadying himself against the violently lurching floor. “Are you alright, your Highness?” he called in.
“We're fine!” called back the Queen. “We're...” At that moment, the ground gave a particularly violent lurch and the guard was thrown from his feet, hitting his head on a decorative ivory doorstop. There was a loud, cracking thud that the Queen heard even over the violence of the earthquake and the guard lay still, a jet of blood spurting from his head.
“Oh no!” cried Lady Dwen, launching herself from her place under the table. Lacurnia grasped at her, desperately trying to hold her back, but her fingers merely brushed the fabric of her dress. Dwen reached the guard and pressed her hands to his scalp, trying to stop the flow of blood. “Dwen!” called out the Queen desperately.
“I can't leave him! He'll bleed out!”
“Drag him back here!”
Dwen tore a strip from her dress and used it as a makeshift bandage for his head while fragments of plaster continued to fall around her. Then she stood and grasped him by the arms. She tried to pull him, but he was much too heavy. “I'll help you!” called Lacurnia, emerging from under the table.
“No!” commanded Dwen. She left the guard and made her way back to the table. She'd tried to stop the bleeding, there was nothing else they could do for him without putting themselves in more danger. The man just had to take his chances now. She threw herself to the carpeted floor and prepared to crawl back to where the Queen was waiting, but then there was a loud, sickening groan from above, followed by a deafening crack as a wooden timber gave way. A large section of the ceiling collapsed entirely, along with a heavy wardrobe from the room above, shaking the whole room with the violence of its impact. It hit the table with a deafening crash and the Queen screamed in terror, throwing her arms over her head. My some miracle, though, the table held, the dark oaken timbers splintering and cracking but not giving way.
Dust filled the air, getting in her eyes and mouth. She coughed and wiped her watering eyes, trying to see whether Dwen was safe. “Are you okay? Dwen! Are you alright?” Tears of anxiety and fear filled her eyes, helping to clear the dust from her vision. There was no reply from Dwen. “No!” wailed the Queen in misery. “No, please! Dwen! Say something, please!”
Gradually the dust cleared, revealing Lady Dwen’s face, and Lacurnia wailed in horror and grief. She'd failed to reach the safety of the table, and the wardrobe had hit her directly in the middle of her back. Her hair had fallen across her face, but the Queen could still see the dust settling in her mouth and her open eyes...
The earthquake was beginning to subside now, but the air was filled with the cries of frightened people, and from somewhere came the sounds of gunfire. “How much incendiary ammunition do we have?” Leothan asked the nearest guard.
“Two thousand rounds,” he replied. “That's all we could get at short notice.”
“That should be enough, there won't be very many of them. They're reacting to the events at Adams Valley, this isn't something they've been planning. I'd bet everything I own that Carrow will be invading, too. That's good. They're moving before they're ready, that gives us an advantage...”
Two chambermaids came running towards them in a blind panic, so terrified that they didn't even pause to acknowledge the King as they fled past him. Ahead came the sound of piping, a sound he’d never heard before but which the Brigadier had described to him. The sound of a Radiant that had come very close, close enough for them to be within reach of its tentacles. “Your Majesty, please, no!” said one of the guards. “Our duty is to protect you...”
“And my duty is to protect the Kingdom!” Leothan carried on running, and around the corner they saw the Radiant, pressed up against a window, its tentacles reaching in through the broken glass towards a doorman cowering behind a large urn. The three guards immediately moved past the King, placing themselves between him and the Radiant, and fired their pistols at the thickest part of the tentacle while Leothan drew his ceremonial sword. It was more a decorative part of his clothing than a practical weapon, but it had a sharp edge and it severed the tentacle as he swung it with all his strength.
The eyes on the nearest part of the creature’s body widened as they saw him, and he heard its piping rising to a higher tone. The Brigadier had also explained what that meant, and he urged the guards to back away the way they'd come. The doorman chased after them, but then he shivered as though being shocked by electricity and his body shrank and changed, years of uplift being stripped from him in seconds. A moment later, a long haired terrier was struggling out of its human clothing, yapping in terror as the Radiant pushed more tentacles through the window after it.
The King cursed in frustration and anger as he ran. A subject of his Kingdom, and he’d failed to protect him! He came to a halt where a pair of doors could be closed across the corridor, and took shelter behind an antique padded chair, the guards taking up position beside him. “We need to find a defensible place of safety...”
“That creature is soft bodied,” said Leothan, though. “It can probably squeeze its way in through that window, then move through the palace in search of victims. I don’t intend to let it!”
“Sire, ordinary bullets seem to have little effect against it, and you'll never get close enough to use your sword without being cursed. We cannot hold it here!”
Leothan knew he was right, but he was damned if he was going to run from the creature. This was his palace! The very centre of the Kingdom! How could he expect the people to trust him to defend the Kingdom if he couldn’t even defend his own palace? More gunfire came from another part of the palace, and another sound as well. The piping of a Radiant, but louder, and with a strange tone to it. He hoped it was the Radiant version of screaming. Maybe someone had armed himself with the incendiary ammunition.
That gave him an idea, and he looked along the corridor at the oil lamps mounted on the walls at intervals. Not lit at this time of day, but filled with oil, waiting for the Royal Lamplighter to come at dusk. “Have you got a light?” he asked the nearest guard.
Smoking was against the rules for a guard on duty, but the guard produced a box of matches and handed it across without comment. Leothan took down the nearest lamp, lit a match, used it to light the lamp. Then he waited, his heart pounding...
The creature appeared around the bend in the corridor. First the leading tentacles, looking like an armada of levitating luminous snakes, then the body, so large that it completely filled the corridor, pushing pieces of smashed furniture ahead of itself. It made a sickening rubbing noise as its sides pressed against the wood panelling of the walls, the creature pushing itself forward with some if its shorter, stumpier tentacles. Its hideous piping filled the air, a sound the King knew would haunt his nightmares for the rest of his life.
The eyes on the forward part of its body fixed on him, and Leothan sensed that it was hunting him specifically. All of them were. What the military analysts called a decapitation strike. Take out the enemy's leadership, and they're temporarily thrown into confusion. With a hereditary monarchy, though, that would mean taking out his heir as well, and a cold fist of ice clutched his heart. Ardria! Was she safe? With an effort, he put her out of his thoughts for the moment. He would need all his concentration to deal with the creature before him.
“Shoot at its gas bags!” he ordered the guards. “It won't kill it. I just want the air filled with hydrogen.”
The guards obeyed, firing their pistols at the vast, quivering mass of the creature. Hydrogen was odourless and colourless, so there was no way to tell if it was working. The King just left it as long as he dared, until the tips of its tentacles were waving before his face, and then he threw the lamp as hard as he could. Then he reached for the doors, intending to throw them closed before the blast of the explosion could reach him...
The Radiant flicked the lamp away with a casual, almost contemptuous flick of a tentacle, though, sending it through a door into a sitting room where it lay on its side, its flame extinguished and oil leaking out onto the expensive carpet. The King cursed in frustration and turned to run as the creature lunged forward, its piping rising in tone as it prepared to cast a curse.
Leothan saw more guards ahead of him, kneeling as they took aim with rifles. “Sire! Get down!” one of them shouted, and he threw himself to the floor, knowing that if their bullets didn't stop it, the Radiant would be upon him mere moments later...
These bullets were different, though. They shone a brilliant white as they flew through the air above the King’s head, and when they hit the Radiant it was engulfed in a ball of flame, a whump of thunder that blew a wave of scalding hot air across the King. He scrambled to his feet and ran away from the fireball that filled the corridor behind him, a mass of flames within which a living creature twisted and contorted. Clearly in agony and uttering the differently toned piping that the King now knew to be screams.
“Incendiary rounds!” he said, gasping with relief. He checked himself over. Red skin, a few blisters. Nothing serious.
“Yes, Sire,” one of the guards replied. “We're distributing them to all the palace's defenders. We think there're just seven or eight of them, Radiants I mean. All that happened to be in the city at the time. This wasn't planned, they’re reacting to something. Wanted to do as much harm as possible before we could get organised.”
The sounds of gunfire continued to come from other parts of the palace, but there was less of it now. Any Radiants still alive were retreating, knowing they'd done all they could. The next attack would be bigger, though. The Brigadier had brought back a tale of a town in Mekrol being attacked by hundreds of Radiants! How long would it take them to organise an attack like that? And there would be more earthquakes, plus storms, maybe even volcanic eruptions if they could do that in a place that had never known volcanic activity.
“Sire, we have to get you to a place of safety...” began the guard.
“Not now,” said Leothan. “Is the Queen safe? The children?”
“I don’t know, Sire. If she kept to her usual habits, she would have been in the nursery. Near the centre of the palace, away from external windows. Unless she was hurt in the initial earthquake, she should be safe.”
Leothan nodded. “Then we have to find the Princess. Balhern took her to the dungeons...”