By the time dawn had properly broken, over the shattered ruins that had so recently encompassed a dingy basement bar, the devastation had acquired quite a crowd. Where once wall-to-wall buildings had closed off the claustrophobic streets in this quarter of the city, the force of destruction had shattered the tall building that the bar had lurked beneath, and the collapse of this structure had taken with it the majority of the two buildings that flanked it. Cobblestones that had lain hidden in shadow for decades rolled over in dusty embarrassment as the sun hit them, rising from beyond the far side of the river that lay just past the huge pile of detritus. For the people of this quarter, it was quite the spectacle, and they stood with bemused interest behind the hastily erected barriers that the emergency services had constructed around the corpses of human construction. Appreciative of the spectacle even at such an early hour, the observers were ready with oohs and aahs every time another piece of what was left standing gave up the ghost, scattering panicked rescuers, or quick with a shriek or gasp every time another mangled body was dug out of the wreckage.
Despite this willingness to be entertained, however, the crowd remained somewhat subdued. Those who had arrived on scene early enough had quickly spread word of the scattered bones they had seen, dragging themselves along the ground to a central point. A certain few even claimed to have seen the bones reformulate themselves into a skeletal figure, whom had glared at his observers with unparalleled menace before disappearing mysteriously, though few were foolish enough to believe that particular story. Somehow, though, they couldn’t bring themselves to dismiss it, and a certain dark mood had infected everyone present. No-one voiced it, but everyone felt it; somehow, this was wrong.
Midday came, and since it had long since been apparent that the excitement was over, people began to drift off in search of food. News bulletins spread word of the disaster, with blame being appropriated to terrorism, the government or God depending on the individual’s choice of news channel, whilst in the background a large clean-up operation began. By midevening, the streets were clear, and the story had been relegated to a human interest report about an ingenious old lady who had escaped the devastation with a bit of quick thinking, a coat hanger and a washing line. Sunset bought an eerie glow to the reduced pile of detritus and those still busily working to clear it, and the cobblestones sighed in relief as the shadows reclaimed what was rightfully theirs. Night fell, and those few who had been there from the start whispered that the Grim Reaper had claimed all but one of his would-be victims, and that this would all be over soon enough.
It was around this time that the man called Marcus finally woke up.
It was not a pleasant wakening. As consciousness returned, his eyes blinked open in shock at the remembrance of pain, and he was instantly blinded by the aggressive light of a noonday sun. Rolling over groaning and blinking spots of colour out of his eyes, he was surprised to discover that, although the memory of powerful aches remained, he wasn’t actively in pain. A quick check of his various extremities revealed that they were all belligerently present, and so he made use of some of them to pull himself to a sitting position, regarding the cold sunlight balefully.
He checked his watch. It said 00:17. He shook it a few times, and it changed to say 00:18. Frowning, he looked again at the sun. Almost directly overhead, it was at the height of its power, bathing him in selflessly-given light that soothed but did not warm. Marcus disregarded it and set about staggering to his feet, which took a couple of attempts.
The sun moved, incrementally, across the sky as Marcus attempted to gather the scattered remains of his wits. Memories of the previous night passed in and out of focus as he wandered around, trying to figure out where he had ended up. There had been a poker game, which he had won. It had been easy enough to drag out the game until the other players were too drunk to bluff. He’d taken his winnings in pursuit of more drinks. He’d found more drinks. His last memory was of a conversation with some stranger, whose face he could not quite recall. Shortly after that, nothing.
And now he was, apparently, on a roof. It was a large roof of various levels, sloping tiles giving way to small plateaus that were decorated with half-constructed chimneys and abandoned building materials. Someone was having work done, someone who owned a very big house.
Marcus felt funny. Over many years and many hangovers, he’d never once failed to find his way home. Waking up on the roof of strange mansions was simply not in his repertoire. Perhaps he had finally succeeded in getting drunk last night. Vague memories of a resolution to drink as he had never drank before floated through his mind, seemingly supplanting this success.
Wrapped up in his thoughts, Marcus failed to notice at first that he had come to the building’s edge, and that an impressive view now unfolded before him. In his immediate vicinity, the grounds of the mansion on which he found himself stretched languidly ahead awhile, coming to an end before a pointed, angry-looking fence that divided the greenery from the paved square that lay on its far side. People milled through this square, all of them somehow managing to avoid looking at the strange statue that dominated it. From this distance, Marcus couldn’t figure out what it was meant to be.
Past the square, the land sloped downwards, taking the incline of the city with it. The relative workmanship of the buildings diminished along the same sliding scale until it reached the city’s end, a tangled array of ship masts that appeared to be an industrial harbour. Beyond that, an expanse of water dominated the horizon. Marcus stood and took it all in, feeling slightly bemused. His city, the one in which he had been drinking the previous night, was built along a river, but some distance inland. The city he now stood in bordered an ocean.
In the opposite direction, the geography of the area peaked not too far away, where there stood some large, impressive looking buildings that seemed to be arranged in a circle around another square. Most striking of these buildings was the impossibly tall, crooked tower that rose and rose until it ended in battered battlements several hundred feet above ground level. It had the air of a greatly elongated pyramid, and served as a notable landmark that definitely didn’t exist in Marcus’s city.
Must have been a good night, he thought, that I ended up so far away from home. Patting down his pockets in search of his cigarettes, he suddenly became aware that his clothing was torn and singed all over. Pausing, he raised his hands, which were unmarked, and memory sparked. He had been in that bar, drinking like a champion – he shuddered in remembrance – for hours. Then he’d spoken with that stranger awhile, and then… Chaos. Noises. Destruction. That had been the end of it.
Marcus studied his surroundings again with an increasing sense of bafflement, noting the absence of any nearby smoking craters strewn with the remains of a seedy basement bar. Somehow, he had gone from point A to point B to come out unscathed in a place that he had no memory of. Or did he? Looking at that tower, swaying slightly in the crisp, Wintery wind, it almost seemed familiar.
Marcus sagged back into a sitting position, legs dangling off the edge of the roof. Something clattered beneath him as he did, and he turned to regard what he had taken to be a piece of roof debris, but what instead appeared to be a tall walking staff of some description. Focusing on it, he almost recoiled, as it seemed to exude an almost tangible sense of menace and gloom, augmented by a slight tint of whisky. Marcus pushed through it to pick up the staff, and at once the aura of menace faded to a muted buzz in the back of his brain, the sort of sensation that made his more lizardly instincts want to freak out. He didn’t notice this, however, because the sensation of the staff in his hand had bought back the last of his missing memories, and the clouded face of the stranger he had spoken with the previous night cleared to take the form of a pearl white skull that beheld infinite eons of destruction in its deep eye sockets.
“I met the Grim Reaper,” Marcus said aloud, wondrously. “I met Death.”
He came to kill me, and I escaped, he continued inwardly. No, that’s not right. He came to watch me die.. so did I? Is this the afterlife? Marcus stared blankly out at the city again. Somehow, it didn’t seem like it was any less than completely real. If not, then where? He lowered his gaze to Death’s staff. It had a slightly crooked curve, and was lighter than it looked. He remembered reaching out for something, anything to hold on to as he’d been thrown from his perch by… whatever had happened. He remembered his skeletal nemesis being shattered by a stray piece of debris. I did escape him, he thought. But how? And to where?
“I should really throw you away,” he told the staff severely. “No good can come of this.”
The staff did not respond.
“Bah, fine,” Marcus said acidly, and took it with him to search for a way off the roof.
As it turned out, the owners of the house Marcus had landed on, or rather their guard dogs, were not particularly thrilled by his visitation. Death’s staff had served him well as an impromptu pole with which to vault the fence, and he now dropped unnoticed into the crowds of people swarming the square. A large amount of them appeared to be listening to the various speakers who were jostling for position beneath the central statue, orating to the masses by committee. The current speaker seemed to be winding up for a big speech, and so, with a head full of fluff and no pressing calls on his time, Marcus decided to stop moving for a moment and listen to him.
“You cannot deny the evidence of your own eyes, my friends! Parliament has not opened its doors to us for over a week now. They say they are closeted, discussing ‘courses of action’, but they are not! They have no idea what to do! They are unfit to rule us! Months have passed, and the threat posed by the wizard has only grown greater and greater, while our grand and glorious leaders have sat on their heels, pushing forward this bloody war with the south, wilfully ignorant of the greater threat gathering to the north! Mark my words – the wizard will come. The Viaggiatori will not surrender to him – they too are fools! These people have all the power, and politician or Linewalker alike, they would lead us to our doom!”
“What would you have us do?” called a voice from the crowd.
“March on the Parliament of Rooks!” the speaker cried back. “The power of the people far outweighs that of our glorious leaders! In one fell swoop we could take back the power – make our own decisions! Make better decisions! Move to counter the Keithus threat before it is too late! And then we’ll march on the Viaggiatori, who caused all this in the first place! And then the Bedlam Palace – let us remove all of these oppressive systems of governance! Let us-“
“You fool,” cried an older speaker, stepping up to push the first speaker off the podium at the statue’s base. “You would deny the will of the gods beneath their very vision? You would spit in the eye of the Goddess of Destruction and Chaos? Tell me, who would rule your new world? Would it be you, sir? Would you pull this statue down and face off in defiance against Java herself?”
The first speaker began to splutter a response, but Marcus stopped listening, focusing instead on the statue. Even this close, he hadn’t been able to identify it at first, but now he saw that it for the most part took the form of a barely-robed young woman, with the head of a squid. Long tentacles dangled like dreadlocks, some styled to fly free and others wrapped around her limbs, holding them as if the body were but a puppet. Sucker marks decorated her exposed flesh. It was a rather disturbing image, and Marcus could understand why people would want to consciously avoid looking at it, especially if this creature were also a harbinger of destruction and chaos. He couldn’t understand why anyone would have built such a statue in the first place, though.
Religion is but the empty sound of drums for those who fail to make their own peace with the world, cackled a voice from the past in his mind, and Marcus had to put his head in his hands. Thinking in straight lines was becoming difficult. In his entire life so far he had never had a problem thinking through a hangover, but right now he felt caught inside his own mind, his concentration waxing and waning with the spark and fade of memory. It was alien, and unnerving.
Suddenly, he became aware that he was being watched. It wasn’t a creeping feeling; he had just looked up and accidentally met the eyes of someone across the square. Amidst the crowd, a man in long, purplish robes, unremarkable barring his questionable dress sense, was staring right at him. He continued to do so for a few seconds as Marcus looked back, before abruptly spinning on the spot in a whirl of cloth, and disappearing into the swarm of people passing through.
Marcus quickly ran his eyes over the rest of the crowd. No-one else was watching him, so he disregarded it, and turned back to the statue, beneath which a new speaker was just stepping forward. Out of the corner of his eye, he caught a flash of purple, and looked around again. Two more people in similar robes had appeared, and were casually making their way through the crowds towards him, their eyes pointed his way with an unsettling intensity.
“Do you see beyond this day, my friends?”
Marcus decided to start walking in the other direction.
“Today we have heard many discussions of the same issue, but so many fail to account for the bigger picture. What of the work that the Viaggiatori do?”
Marcus glanced back over his shoulder; the men in purple had quickened their step. They were still staring right at him. He dived into a thicker group of people, prodding his way clear with the staff, scattering a circle of elder gentlemen dressed in robes and pointed hats.
“Our world lies in precious tandem with another world, and were it not for the careful work of the Viaggiatori, all might be lost at any time. How could they help the wizard? To do so is to doom us all.”
Unfortunately, the length of the staff, an item designed for the use of a seven foot tall unearthly being, surpassed the height of most of the crowd, and was clearly visible bobbing above them as Marcus ran for it. The men in purple robes transferred their gazes to that instead.
“And yet in saving us, they doom us still. But that is what we must face! For the sake of more than just ourselves, we must deny the wizard, stare him down and tell him that he shall not pass!”
The crowd did not seem to be reacting well to this new speaker; boos and jeers were erupting throughout, and their attention was beginning to wane. This suited Marcus, who busily continued to not listen as he battled his way through the dispersing crowd. He briefly considered again throwing away the staff, but it felt comfortable in his hands and might make for a decent weapon should his pursuers manage to catch up, so he kept a firm hold and kept going.
“Are we really more important – wait! Are we really more important than the whole?” The speaker’s voice had taken on an edge of desperation. “Will you stand by to live for a month? A year? Where will it end? Come back!”
With a final heave there came a sudden lessening of pressure, and Marcus found himself clear of the crowd. Unfortunately, coming up the street towards him were three more people in purple robes who instantly adjusted their general direction at the sight of him. Brilliant. Panicking slightly, he looked around for any other direction that he might be able to escape in, and found an alleyway to his left. It twisted and turned awhile before being consumed by shadows, and looked positively murderous, but since it was the only option that lacked purple-robed pursuers, he went for it.
As the hubbub of the crowd faded into the general background murmur of the city, Marcus was left alone, with neither preachers nor pursuers to provide company for his thoughts. And his thoughts were very grim, when they still managed to arrive in straight lines; he was constantly gripped by the feeling that although everything was as it seemed, it was all also something it shouldn’t be. The people he had heard spoke in a familiar accent, but everything they said was foreign. They spoke of wars and death and riots and insurrections and horrible, betentacled gods, and if that was what he was to now be surrounded by then he was far less inclined to look favourably on his explosive escape, especially if he was then going to be chased by well-dressed people with determined expressions.
He paused. Had he really just thought that he would rather have died than be exposed to any more strife? Considering the thought, he continued on his way, laughing bitterly, until the far end of his alleyway twisted into view. Hidden in shadow, he sighed, for two well-dressed, determined-looking people were waiting around at the alley’s mouth, quite visibly waiting for someone to pop out.
Marcus turned around to go back the way he’d come, and saw two of the men from the square making their way towards him from the other direction. Once again bereft of a way out, he tried looking up. There was a window above him, with an invitingly wide looking window ledge and what looked like loose brickwork, which was immensely promising. It’d be fantastic, really, to just get one’s foot into the most useful available orifice, launch one’s self up, get to roof level and continue in the vein of a dramatic rooftop chase of sorts. The situation spiralled through Marcus’s mind, and he was enthralled with the raw heroic beauty of it, until it faded into fluff and he realised that in his current state of mind, he was far more likely to jump up, miss his handhold, twist his ankle, fall back down, break a couple of bones and then get caught by his pursuers anyway. Weighing his options, he decided to just get caught.
So Marcus stepped out of the shadows, threw down Death’s staff and put his hands up. “Alright,” he wearily addressed the closest of his pursuers, a bulky looking young man with long, unkempt blonde hair, who was strolling swiftly and purposefully towards him. “I’ll come quietly.” He was about to add a sarcastic postscript when the man reached him and knocked him out with an elegant, sweeping punch to the side of the head.