CHAPTER ONE

The Overseer's Summons

 

If he tries to touch me again... I'll kill him. She wondered what he wanted this time. The man in question was Calamandis, Regional Overseer and the governor of this canton, one of the few remaining bastions of humanity anywhere. She was frightened, but not overly so - she had dealt with him many times, but the only thing to do was to go visit him, and find out.

Emerging from a crumbling tower, she shimmied across a ledge, hoping that the ancient mortar gluing the bricks together would hold up a little longer. The ruin once served as a small Templar chapel. Long ago it had fallen into such disrepair that it was abandoned by the Order, sealed at ground level, and declared off limits to all persons. It was a death sentence to be caught trespassing here, but she was used to death sentences too.

Three years ago, when she was only sixteen, the Templars had burned down her house. They had killed her grandmother, forcing her to flee into the night, and become a fugitive. Now she slept here, right under their noses, had they cared to look. The old chapel, like herself, had been temporarily forgotten. Both of them reminders of the Order's grim history.

Sometimes I want to laugh out loud, at the irony of it all, but that would be too reckless. Besides, her voice would have carried along the deserted stone walls, had there been anyone else there to hear her.

She pulled herself up onto the stone rooftop of the chapel and walked toward the old brittle ramparts. From here she could see the city streets sprawling in all directions away from her vantage point. A pair of torches bobbled in the gloomy cobbled streets far below. Likely the city guard. They would be looking out for anyone who didn't belong. Like me. As it was, she could hear no panicked shouts, or the pounding of running feet, or clashing of steel in the streets below. On balance, it appeared to be a quiet night.

She would travel across the rooftops. For her, it was the safest option to reach Calamandis' office. She resigned herself to the journey, to see what he wanted this time. He always wanted something, and usually it was more than she was willing to give. Still, she needed whatever money she could earn.

Her name was Alis, and she was human. She came from the same Nordic-looking stock that was favored by the Templars, with high cheekbones and a noble face, though just slightly off somehow - her elegantly cut features tending toward severity. Never quite stretching all the way to classic beauty. She was five feet and seven inches tall and had a leaner than average build. Good food was hard to come by when you were always on the run.

She had just turned nineteen, and she was in the prime of her life. It just hadn't quite turned out the way that she had hoped. The wind on the rooftop pulled at her long ponytail which was tied with a braided black ribbon. Her hair was a mousy mix of colors that hovered indecisively between light brown and alternating shades of wet straw. She hated it. Luckily, she had a simple trick that could change its color.

 She ran her faded leather gloves through her hair, and the silver ring she wore on the index finger of her right hand grew warm. Instantly, the color of her hair turned to a deep chestnut brown as her hands passed over it.

This was one of few such minor spells or cantrips that she had picked up over the years. In the world of magick the cantrip was but a bit of fluff, a parlour trick at best. Yet cantrips were all that she could manage, and they always came in handy in a pinch.

The new colour shone dully in the last light which cast subdued reflections off more than a dozen eight-sided matte glass jewels placed strategically throughout her hair.

She wished that she had better clothes, but she couldn't afford them, and nobody was going to do her any favors. She didn't have any friends, or anyone in the world who would help her, even if they could.

 Her charcoal grey suede pants that covered her long legs were too tight, too short, and too old. She had always meant to replace them, but money was hard to come by. They had rubbed smooth on her knees and thighs, and on her backside. For a few years now they'd run too high over her ankles but, she thought, at least they cover my legs.

Over these she wore tall, black, low-heeled soft leather boots that she had repaired many times. She tried to keep them well maintained with a mixture of oily bootblack and elbow grease, but would have to find a way to replace them before long.

Her top was a matching charcoal suede, now too small and too tight so that she'd had to cut the sleeves off to make more room for her arms, and to give her a bit of breathing room. It rode up high these days, exposing a few inches of midriff and on a cool summer's night like this one, it made her chilly. She wore a wide leather belt, with small pouches - two back and two to the sides that did its best to cover the difference. The suede of her tunic was rubbed smooth from years of wear on her shoulders, and embarrassingly, her front, where the material had made long contact with the heavy wool over-cloak she usually wore.

She had on a small canvas backpack pulled tight to her body so that nothing would jostle around while she leapt from rooftop to rooftop. Not that she had much to carry.

Tonight, she needed to be able to move freely, and so she wore a black woolen half cape, and not her heavy over-cloak. It came down a little below her waistline, a bit frayed around the edges and with a small rip in the fabric below the left shoulder. She had neither the time nor thread to mend it.

She gave a last disapproving look at her ensemble. It was the only one she owned, from the cracked boots to her too shiny top. With a little shake of her head she pulled the half-cape tighter around her as the cool night air - or the impending visit with Calamandis - gave her a chill.

Best be getting on with it.

At her feet was a small pile of burlap scraps and she grabbed a few, wrapping them around her gloved hands. She reached up into the darkness and grabbed hold of an iron cable that had been used to stabilize the ruined chapel. She held tight and stepped up onto the parapet.

Loosening her grip slightly, she slid down the wire, travelling over the streets below her until she landed on the roof of a block of buildings, discarding the scraps of cloth. It had felt like flying. To be able to fly at will, now that would be a power worth having, she thought. The feeling of danger and freedom as she had soared briefly over the city below her was a little electrifying. It was times like these when she wished she had someone to share such experiences with.

As she stepped down onto the opposite rooftop she sighed heavily. It wasn't easy being 'persona non grata', a phrase that usually meant unacceptable or unwanted, but to the Templar Order it meant only one thing; kill on sight. She thought that after three years they would have forgotten about her. Indeed, much about her had changed; her appearance, her height, her voice... if not her clothing. But the armor-clad fanatics of the Templar Order had long memories and ways of finding out who a person really was. No, it was too dangerous to let anyone else into her life. It always had been. Her parents dead or missing, grandmother dead, herself a wanted woman, deemed guilty of her father's crimes, whatever they were. She would have to find a way to outsmart Calamandis and turn the tables, but she would have to get there in one piece first.

Chiding herself for being foolish, she set her face into an expressionless mask. She wasn't done living quite yet. As depressing as life was sometimes, she was determined to survive. Things would get better. It has to get better. She turned to the northwest where all that she could see was the twinkling of lights in the city below her, and a moonless starry sky above.

Far beyond her field of vision were the dangerous lands outside the city. She often thought about making her way out there. To get out of this place and start over somewhere else, but it wasn't possible. There was nowhere else to go. Everyone agreed that beyond the city limits, the Deadlands stretched for unknowable miles. They were inhabited by zombies and ghouls and who knew what else, and beyond that, they said that there was nothing but desert and then more of the unknown as far as anyone could imagine.

So she was trapped here, for better or worse, and had to make the best of it, like she always had. But she didn't have to like it.

Now you're just delaying the inevitable.

She turned and made her way quietly across the rooftops toward the town square. Along the way, she flitted around curtained windows, the light of candles flickering from dark rooms within. Occasionally she heard scattered bits of music or drunken laughter, or snatches of loud conversation as she crept by.

There are things far worse than shadows darkening your windowsill out in the city. The thought made her pause. She had grown up hearing stories about evil creatures that lurked in the night; hybrid monsters that were half dead, or bestial, or worse, all looking to prey on unsuspecting humans. As a child, those stories terrified her. As a young woman, alone in the city, she understood them only too well.

She scanned the horizon, but squinting into the shadows, she saw no obvious signs of danger. That guaranteed nothing, but there was no sense worrying about it either. I'm pretty good at taking care of myself, and besides, I'm out here sneaking around in the dead of night too; for all anyone knows, I might be dangerous too. Still she took care, as neither the city watch nor the darker forces that prowled the city would show her any mercy.

Hopping onto another roof, she resumed her journey. Toward the center of town, the quality of the houses and building blocks improved incrementally and a few windows shone with cold electric light. It was a luxury that few could afford, and a sure sign these days that the occupant was connected to the Templars. She gave these a wide berth, and twice had to double back and find another route forward. It seemed that every day there were more and more Templars in the city.

Just ahead was the market square, now quiet and deserted. During the daytime, it was a giant open-air bazaar that sold just about everything that anyone with a bag full of silver could afford.

Directly below was the area where the food stalls were set up and her stomach cramped painfully at the thought of a good meal. She was usually broke and almost always hungry. Looking at the position of the stars, she figured she had enough time to get to Calamandis' office even if she took a short break. She sat on the roof's ledge and pulled out a glass bottle of stale water and a decrepit biscuit. She imagined what wondrous things she would eat when she was finally rich. She was certain that one day, she would be able to walk into the market in the daylight and wander around the stalls, purse heavy with coppers and jangling silver, lazily picking out anything at all. She took a bite out of the stale biscuit and washed it down with a slug of tepid water. Ah, to be able to eat whatever I wanted. That was life!

She looked longingly at the central part of the darkened market. It was usually filled with squawking clothes merchants and spice vendors and purveyors of all manner of talismans, potions and quasi-mystical rubbish. In this world everyone needed a little magick in their life, and Alis was no exception. The trouble was that real magick was hard to come by. She knew that bitterly well. She had learned so little, and didn't know how she would ever be able to learn any more than what she already knew. If only she knew more, had the power to change things, but that was just a dream now. She decided that she didn't need any of those worthless trinkets; what she needed was more magick. But iy was the the flim-flam and the baubles and the snake oil that were always in plentiful supply.

It was the Templars that by and large had the real stuff. Almost a hundred years ago, humanity was driven close to extinction and it was the Templars that came thundering out of their stronghold at the last moment. They wielded powerful magicks that pushed the hybrids back and saved the human race. That was the story. However it had actually happened - Alis didn't believe the Order's version of history - an uneasy peace between human and hybrid had been reached. It hadn't stopped the fighting entirely, or the enmity between races, and another genocide was always just around the next corner as long as the Templars had a say.

Beyond the market, torches glowed in wobbling pairs, some stationary and some moving, casting long shadows as the city watch turned over their patrols from the Overseer's command center. It was about the right time of night for that. The watch was just another hazard faced by the citizens of this metropolis. Sure, they caught the occasional mugger or thief, but it was only so that they could pocket the loot for themselves. A cut of the profits always found its way to Calamandis. Alis got to her feet, dusting off her hands and putting her water bottle back into her pack. Come on then, might as well get this over with.

She had to skirt around the right-hand side of the square where the surrounding buildings were clumped closer together. It was easier to clamber from rooftop to rooftop in that direction. Here, she had to be much more careful, as there were watchmen lurking everywhere, and Calamandis would be furious if she was seen coming or going. After all, she was his little secret. One of many such secrets no doubt. She had just made her way along a narrow pipe that crossed a cobbled street when she saw a pair of watchmen strolling lazily below her. She stepped gingerly onto a narrow ledge along the next building. She had just started to reach up to grab onto a railing above her when the loud footfalls of the watchmen below stopped suddenly and their conversation halted. She lowered her hands and tried to squeeze into the shadow of a small overhang just to her right. She was a sitting duck up there.

'Oi, you there!' yelled one of the watchmen, raising his torch higher so the weak orange light crept closer to where she was hiding.

Alis held her breath. How could they have possibly seen her? Or had they heard her?

'Better come on out you sorry blaggard!' called the other man.

Getting caught with her bottom hanging out over the street while a couple of watchmen laughed at her wasn't the way that she had imagined being captured after all these years.

'Come out or we'll shoot you down, you greasy goblin!' said the first watchman now un-slinging a light crossbow from his back.

Alis redoubled her grip, her fingers aching from the strain, and then she heard heavy footsteps just above her. The stench of stale human sweat and cheap booze hit her nose with such unexpected force that she almost let go of the woodwork she was clinging to. The man above, not a goblin after all, cleared his throat noisily and at great leisure. He spat a ball of phlegm and gods know what else down at the guards below.

'That's for you then, it is!' exclaimed the sweaty man in a voice borne of long nights spent drinking and smoking. Alis heard him scratching something and winced.

'Having yourself a little lie down are you porky?' The first guard laughed as he re-slung his crossbow, while the other guffawed at his friend's wit.

'We can't all be mincing around at night looking to beat a few pieces of copper out of the local citizenry, can we?' said the disgusting man.

'Aye now, we ain't keepin' watch like you are, you old git. The only thing you'll see tonight is the bottom of that bottle of rum you've got up there!' said the second guard.

'There ain't no good rum to be had tonight, you know that... I can throw you down some goblin mead if you want,' replied the man, before punctuating his comment with a loud belch.

'Aw, that stuff will turn you green, it will,' cried the first guard. The man above her just grunted loudly by way of reply.

'Come on, let's be off then,' said the second guard impatiently.

'Don't let the vampires get you then porky, alright?' said the first laughing, as they turned away.

'Ah, go to hell!' spat the drunken man.

By this time Alis' hands and forearms were screaming in pain, a trickle of sweat slid down her face and grew cold in the night air. She would have to move soon or risk falling to the cobbles more than thirty feet below. Finally, after what seemed like an eternity, the sound of the watchmen's footfalls receded into the distance.

She tried shifting her weight to get more of it onto her left boot but the old woodwork creaked and she stopped suddenly, holding her breath.

'Eh?' said the man above her, and then a few moments later mumbled a garbled aw it's nothing then before stomping away a few paces. She could still smell him, so he probably hadn't gone far. She risked moving out to the left onto the wider ledge below the railing, and she crouched down, trying to keep her breathing quiet. Her arms were still shaking from the effort of clinging to the side of the building, and she took a moment to catch her breath.

She turned quietly on the soles of her feet and rose slightly so she could peek over the railing. The smelly man stood a foot away, he was looking out across the balcony towards the square and swaying somewhat drunkenly as he took another swig from a small dark bottle. He was big and scruffy and dirty and looked mean. He wore a sergeant's black and red uniform, but his coat was off, propped up on a heavy crossbow nearby. A stained and grimy undershirt strained itself over a hairy and corpulent chest. He staggered back against a low table and scratched his armpit aggressively with his free hand.

Now what?

Alis edged her head a little higher. He wouldn't see her unless he suddenly turned in her direction, which seemed unlikely, as he appeared to be concentrating hard on just keeping himself upright. If she waited long enough he might pass out on his own. Wouldn't that be convenient?

She saw that the balcony bore electric spotlights, now dark, that pointed out across the square. The drunken guardsman seemingly was tasked with lighting up any intruders. Twisted black wires snaked out of the lights and ran a few feet over the head of the guard, giving Alis an idea. It was a lucky break.

Alis knew another cantrip, one that got little use these days, and that she was a bit out of practice with. It might come in handy here though. She raised her gloved right hand, concentrating hard and the ring she wore grew warmer as she jabbed her finger silently toward the black wires. Nothing happened.

She screwed her eyes shut and willed the cantrip to work. Come on. She jabbed her finger again. Nothing.

She shook her head, angry with herself and redoubled her concentration. She whipped her finger at the wires and half whispered the word Jolt! Suddenly a bright blue arc of electricity jumped from the wire into the top of the man's head with a loud crack and a puff of burning hair.

He dropped the bottle he was holding. 'What the 'effin... ow!' he exclaimed, stumbling backward and falling on his backside with a loud flumph!

Alis was smiling despite the seriousness of the situation and she jabbed her finger at the wires again. Another blue electric bolt struck a metal cup that was sitting on a side table.

'Cursed electrics, dunno why we bother, better off without them I say... ah for... ow!' griped the man as he tried to scoot backwards like a crab into the building, seemingly not wanting to get too close to the wires. She pulled herself wearily over the railing and caught her breath again. What little magicks she knew, though almost entirely useless in a purely practical sense, still came in handy on occasion.

All that was left was to cross a bundle of power lines between the two buildings and sneak into Calamandis' office without being seen. Piece of cake. She sat down on the roof's edge and swung her legs down and onto the wires. With a soft grunt she twisted around and made her way to the wide ledge that went all around the fourth floor of the command building. With a last push of effort, Alis heaved herself over the ledge. She flipped onto her back and just lay there for a few minutes getting her head straight and steeling herself for her meeting with the Overseer.

Home