The autumn morning was colder than usual. The forerunner of the winter winds had already arrived from the south bringing with it a thick front of cloud and rain. Despite the conditions, the streets surrounding the vast train terminal teemed with people. The terminal’s vast dome reached into the imposing clouds overhead, its highest point disappearing into the grey murk. Along the ring of the dome great statues of battle-ready angels—armoured and armed—leered down from their gloomy perches. The shadows cast by the dampening clouds twisted the heavenly faces into masks of judgement and their angelic wings seemed tattered and filthy. The line of holy statues were apocalyptic in the failing weather. A strong gust of wind blew from the south, bringing with it the stench of the Unclean Quarter. The cold and the clarity in the air after rainfall sharpened the stench. Notes of filth, waste and old smoke followed on the back of the southerly wind, leaving the wretched smell of the slum’s forsaken over the station.
On a street corner across from the train station Marcus Blackwood watched as tongues of people moved in and out of the arched entrances to the terminal. He found satisfaction in how the nature of the throng ignored the firm castes of the city. In the teeming mass, all were equal, and the poor brushed shoulders with the refined. Peddlers lined the streets, calling and yelling, as they offered their wares to the disinterested clamour of people. To the right, a group of priests clung to the foot of an angelic statue, as if it were a bulwark against the tide of people, and distributed pamphlets of the Church. The unwashed and desperate bowed at their feet and tugged humbly at the hems of their robes as they begged for blessings and salvation. Above the scene of priests and poor, the everlasting gaze of the statue peered out to the surrounding city as if it cared little for the woes of mortals.
Blackwood turned away from the priests. He found them righteous and apathetic—just two symptoms of the sickness that had taken hold of the Church. Those desperate souls would find little salvation from the so-called holy men. Wolves amongst sheep, he thought. From the shadow cast by his wide-brimmed hat, Blackwood’s dark and hardened eyes surveyed the crowd. He watched as a gentleman and lady followed their servicemen through the human traffic, the ushers doggedly clearing a passage for their employers. The crowd parted enough to let the group through, but, by the look of anguish on the lady’s face, it was evident she disapproved of her close vicinity to the unwashed. Mud from the rain-soaked streets spoiled the lining of her emerald dress and her honey-brown hair was coming undone from the immaculately crafted bun beneath her teardrop hat. She pressed her oversized handbag to her chest and followed closely behind her husband. Blackwood’s eyes tracked the couple and their retinue of servants, as well as the pack of street urchins that stalked them through the crowd. The pack of cutpurses was five strong. Two on the left, and three to right. He followed their hungry eyes to the handbag held by the lady’s arms. It would be hard work getting it from her clutches, but Blackwood knew the tenacity of Gotheim’s underbelly. By the look of the thieving children, they were vermin from the Unclean Quarter—filthy and as agitated as the rats that flooded the slum’s gutters. Skin darkened with dirt and eyes marred with the yellow tinge of malnourishment, they looked like rats too. The urchins wouldn’t risk a blatant snatch—not with so many servants and footmen about. They would most probably cause a diversion. Yes, that’s what they’d do. He’d seen it many times before. Perhaps they’d pester the gentleman, or trip up one of the footman and send luggage sprawling, but either way, in the chaos caused, one of them would pounce on the handbag. Intervention would be easy, Blackwood mused. His mere presence would send the thieves scurrying in retreat, but it wasn’t his responsibility. The fate of the fine lady’s handbag caused little concern for him. Such trivial matters of doing good and preventing bad were beneath him. This was the responsibility of the constabulary. He looked about the heaving throng and saw no city constables. Pity, he thought.
Another southerly wind raked through the busy street, reinvigorating the stink from the Unclean Quarter. The stench would only get worse with the passing of the day as the markets deep within the slums opened for trade and the sickly produce soured in the open air. Blackwood could almost envisage the stray dogs, boney and ragged, scampering from one stall to the next, scavenging for any soiled scraps. He turned his face from the wind and the reinvigorated smell that followed on the back of it, and looked up the street.
Beyond the shifting traffic of people, he could make out the towers and spires of Gotheim disappearing into the distance. The city was an ocean of such structures—tall baroque spikes and reaching fingers that stabbed at the sky. What was visible to him along the street was a mere glance through a keyhole. The city was vast and far reaching, and yet it felt like a tumour, ripened and ready to rupture. Thousands of refugees had fled to the safety of the city during the wars—its tall walls the only real protection against the horrors that swept through the realm. The wars were over now; they had been for a long time, and yet the people never left the city. Perhaps it was the ease of staying put, rather than returning to some blasted plot of land to start again. There had been no effort by the Council of Suprema to vacate the refugees once peace was established. How could they? Gotheim was the symbol of the emperors’ dominion. What message would it send if the Lord Marshal forced the people he was sworn to protect from the emperors’ city? He couldn’t blame the Lord Marshal entirely. The Church had a role to play in harbouring the refugees too. Just like the Lord Marshal, the Bishop King wished to demonstrate the generosity of the Church. Now, the city was overpopulated. The Unclean Quarter was barely containable and the face of the city was beginning to turn ugly. Blackwood glanced over the crowd again from beneath the brim of his hat and visited a thought he had often. Perhaps the city’s gentle accommodation of the refugees was the reason for the swollen population, but he believed there was another reason why those who had fled to the city never returned to their lands, and it was simple—fear. Fear for what still lurked out in the wilderness. Fear of what haunted the darkness beyond the walls of the city, and although no one would risk saying it, Blackwood knew, they were afraid of what may still stalk the streets of Gotheim itself.
He scowled at the people before looking up the street again. In the distance, beyond the spires and towers, deep behind the curtain of winter cloud and rain, a monolithic shadow towered over all else. It was the Citadel—the great tower-fortress that stood at the heart of the city. At its peak sat the Silver Throne, now empty since the last of the emperors was gone and the throne’s heir lost nearly two centuries ago. The holy line of the emperors may be no more, but as long as the Citadel stood and the Lord Marshal remained prefect of the realm, a flame still flickered against the dark. And, as long as the Inquisition still held office, that flame would cast out any evil from the shadows.
Blackwood looked out at the moat of people between himself and the station and adjusted his grip on the handle of his leather letter bag. With the other, he drew the sigil of the Inquisition from beneath his coat and moved it so it hung neatly at the centre of his chest. The red-gold of the double cross hung heavily from the band of black beads around his neck. It was a sanctified symbol. A grim symbol.
Blackwood stepped from off the street corner and strode into the mass of people. The cold wind blew again, pulling his coat out behind him. His hat sat firmly on his head, its wide brim casting a dark shadow over his face. As he made his way to the arched entrance of the station, the crowd parted before him and no one dared to look him in the eye. He could feel their hurried glances gaze at the double-cross hanging from his neck before they scurried out of his way. His path through the crowd took him past the cluster of priests before the angel statue. The people continued to part before the inquisitor as he advanced. The holy men paused as they watched the dark figure from the Citadel stalk through the crowd like he was a lion moving through a trapped flock of sheep. For a moment, the loud voices of the crimson preachers stuttered and fell to nothing more than a murmur. The religious fervour faltered in their eyes. Blackwood offered them no regard. It was an insult to not acknowledge the men of the Church, but Blackwood was no ordinary man and the laws that governed them did not apply to him. The priests were in the wrong city too. They were in the capital, and that was under the Lord Marshal’s rule. If he so wished, Blackwood could have them escorted onto a train heading back to the Bishop King’s city. Worse still, he could have them thrown into a cell beneath the Citadel. The holy men knew this, and despite the anger writhing beneath their pious expressions, they did nothing to reprimand the inquisitor’s lack of respect. As soon as they fell to his rear, the holy men picked up their calls of holiness again, praising and preaching to their gathering congregation with a new enthusiasm—undoubtedly to spite the inquisitor. Dogs. The word was clean and harsh in the forefront of Blackwood’s mind as he discarded their presence from his thoughts. He moved swiftly, his long legs consuming the paved ground beneath him in deliberate strides. Blackwood’s passage through the mass left a clear wake behind him and, in a matter of moments, he walked beneath one of the great arched entrances to the train station and left the cold stink and chaos behind.
Inside, a wide concourse ran from north to south and, like the limbs of a grotesque spider, a dozen metal staircases led down to platforms below. Blackwood looked up at the vast window occupying the upper reaches of the northern end of the concourse. On better days, the sunlight would pour through the great panes of glass and wash the terminal with brightness, but now there was just the gloom of the approaching the winter. In the distance, dark plumes of industry smoke rose into the sky, smudging the grey clouds like running trails of charcoal. Blackwood marched on. He had a train to catch. Platform eight, his ticket said. The terminal was a grand jewel of the new age. Giant statues carved from black marble—monuments to the Citadel’s alchemists, the masterminds behind the great train station—lined either side of the wide concourse. Each looming alchemist cradled a glass orb in their marble palms and, within each orb, the sickly green glow of gaslight burned. Overhead, the high vaulted ceiling of the dome presided with its great panelled paintings. From above, depictions of the emperors—Dominique and Pangallion—looked down at the countless people hurrying along the concourse. The latter carried the gift of illumination in his open hands, and the former bore freedom at the tip of a sword. Columns of polished grey stone ran along the edge of the terminal’s circular interior, rising from the ground to meet the descent of the dome, thereby forming a wondrous gallery. Blackwood found the nature of the terminal a contradiction. Its exterior was adorned with the religious icons of the Church, whilst inside it seemed like a temple to the emperors and their alchemists. The world was a contradiction now, the Inquisitor thought.
He navigated his way across the concourse. Still, people avoided him and averted their eyes as he approached. Most were too busy scurrying along to catch their train, whilst others kept to themselves and lingered along the edge of the wide walkway. The terminal was filled with the voices of hundreds of people. The din rose to the domed ceiling in a great murmur that sounded like the ceaseless rains that were yet to come. A shrill whistle from a train erupted from a platform below, shattering the incessant human chatter like a bolt of lightening. Making his way along the concourse, Blackwood counted the numbered staircases that led to their respective platforms. Another train whistle screamed over the din of the station and a ragged figure burst from the crowd ahead of Blackwood. It was one of the forsaken souls of the Unclean Quarter, a worn, elderly man dressed in tattered rags that barely seemed to hold onto his bony shoulders. A sunken face, scarred with the marks of a life lived too long, caught the inquisitor’s eye. Unlike the others, the beggar met Blackwood’s stare and held it. The wretch’s stare was empty, except for the faint flicker of hope that still lingered in the corners of his eyes. Slowly, the beggar stretched out his arms, palms turned to the ceiling like shallow cups, and with a gentle nod asked the inquisitor for charity.
Blackwood admired the man’s tenacity. There were few who could stand before an inquisitor and hold themselves together. Whatever composure the beggar still possessed, it was more than Blackwood had seen from men who had proclaimed their courage to face an inquisitor. Blackwood would give the man a handful of coppers if it were up to him, if he were allowed to entertain the inkling of respect for the beggar that now itched in his heart, but the code which governed the Inquisition prevented him from doing so. Instead, he acknowledged the man with a simple nod.
“Look over there,” a voice called out from somewhere in the heavy traffic of the concourse. The unseen voice was loud and commanding, its words clearly heard over the raucous of the passing people. “Look at the Inquisitor,” the voice bellowed out again. Blackwood looked away from the beggar and scanned the concourse, his dark eyes taking in the face of each passing stranger as he shifted his gaze from left to the right. Nearly at the other end of the concourse, on the edge of his right shoulder, Blackwood found a woman amongst the crowd who was undoubtedly the owner of the domineering voice. She stared at Blackwood with an intensity that was a mixture of excitement and anger. Bright blue eyes shone from a face framed by of long grey hair. A thick line of black ash ran down the centre of the woman’s forehead, and she wore a robe of a similarly ashen-coloured fabric. Scarolen, Blackwood thought. The woman was a rogue priestess broken free from the Church. A small group of people were gathered around the Scarolen and they too stared at Blackwood. Some collapsed immediately beneath the gaze of the inquisitor as his black eyes moved over them. Others, riled by the blasphemous words from the desolate preacher, stood their ground against Blackwood’s attention. He could see the fear slowly creep over them as he turned to face the small group of disheveled listeners.
“See how the servants of the Citadel do nothing for the people of the city,” the Scarolen cried out again. Her deep voice seemed to rally the spirits of this small congregation and they pulled together. Some nodded and continued to look at Blackwood, whilst others turned to listen to the fallen priestess’s words. The Scarolen stretched out her arms, beckoning her listeners to come closer, and they did. The woman was beginning to draw the attention to herself. Blackwood noticed others along the concourse shifting their eyes nervously between the Scarolen and himself. The beggar from the Unclean Quarter was gone too. He must have retreated back into the mingling mass of people. It was a rare sight to see someone challenge an inquisitor, let alone to see it done in such a public place for no other reason than to gather a larger audience, never mind the group of priests doing the Church’s work outside the station. The woman was stuck between two different sets of wolves. She is mad, or she’s a heretic, Blackwood thought. Either way, her life in the city would be short-lived if she continued with these public demonstrations.
The Scarolen directed a skeletal hand toward Blackwood and pointed a long finger at the double-cross on his chest. “They say peace has come. They who reside in the great black tower. They say the Old Ways are gone. Yet, the people still live under the shadow of fear.” Her listeners nodded their heads and mumbled in appreciation of her words. “The emperors are gone. The Lord Marshal rules with a tyrant’s hand and the Church has been pushed out of the city while the bishop calls himself a king.” Despite the loud murmur of the busy station and the din that echoed like rainfall through the high dome, Blackwood could make out the slight percussion of applause from the heretic’s audience. The Scarolen paused for a moment and stared at her congregation. Her eyes flashed dangerously and a thin line of perspiration broke on her upper lip. More people were beginning to gather around the woman, eager to hear what she had to say. She was treading a dangerous line. So were these people. Simply entertaining the words of a blasphemer was punishable. The rogue priestess gathered her ashen cloak around herself and cleared her throat. “How can there be peace when those who should be looking after the welfare of the people bicker for power? The Church has lost its way. Those crimson wolves seek only to build their own kingdom in this world. And the Citadel has shut its doors. The Lord Marshal looks only to build industry while you starve; while you linger in the dirt and wait for the fruits of peace to be delivered.”
The Scarolen pointed her long finger at the double-cross on Blackwood’s chest again, but her eyes remained focused on the people she addressed. Tears appeared to well up in the woman’s eyes as the fervour of her speech overcame her. “And then there are the inquisitors, the dark butchers of the Citadel that walk amongst us but are not of us. They observe and wait, still looking for signs of the Old Ways. But they tell us the Old Ways are dead, do they not?” The Scarolen paused to let her question resonate with her audience. “More lies. The butchers still hold their watch because they know the Old Ways still linger. Look at the witch hunter. He only cares for the destruction of the fae. He doesn’t care for any of you. None of you matter to him. Stand in his way, and he’ll put you down. I’ve seen it before, my fellow citizens.”
Blackwood remained still but he could feel more eyes upon him. He could kill the woman where she stood and carry on with his business. Blackwood looked around from the shadow of his wide brim hat and caught the uneasy stares of those surrounding the Scarolen. They know it too, he thought. The heretic’s little congregation was beginning to look unsettled. Nervous glances were being exchanged and those who had gathered along the concourse were beginning to leave, continuing on their way. There was no need to kill the heretic. Her own words were turning against her and the authority of the Citadel, although imperfect—and Blackwood knew of its flaws—could not be challenged, let alone brought down by the likes of the Scarolen.
The congregation began to break apart as people realised the rogue preacher was leading them down a dangerous path. The Scarolen reached out with both her arms, helplessly beckoning her fair-weather followers to stay and listen. She pushed her voice and began to speak even louder. Tears fell down her face as she pleaded with them to stay. “Do not leave my fellow people. Stay and listen. Do not be frightened by their lies. Stay and listen.” No-one listened. Everyone left. The small cluster of people that had stood attentively only a few minutes ago had quietly dissolved into the flowing traffic along the concourse. Desperation and anger twisted the Scarolen’s face, turning her narrow features into a vulturous mask of hatred. She looked across the crowd, bearing her eyes into Blackwood as more tears streamed down her face. “Smirk Inquisitor,” sneered the heretic. “Go into the darkness and pursue your fiends, but you will see. No victory awaits you there.” A malevolence filled the woman’s eyes. The tellings of a lunatic left her face and a prophetic shadow seemed to take its place. The Scarolen looked more like a messenger of doom than a destitute heretic. “The Church is hollow and the Citadel will break, witch hunter. The darkness you hunt will soon unfurl its tattered wings and fill the sky. Then what will you and your ilk do? Burn the innocent again? Take to the fields and exterminate like you did before? There is no peace in this world. There is no light. There is only the our doom.”
Blackwood turned from the heretic and walked into the swarming crowd along the concourse. He’d heard enough from the doomsday prophet. On any other occasion he would take care of the heretic and cast judgement upon her right where she stood, issuing orders to have her escorted to the Citadel’s prison. The woman would never see another sun rise. Fortune blessed the fallen priest though. Blackwood already had his own business to attend to. The hinterlands awaited him and there was only a single train per day. If he were to deal with the heretic he’d surely miss it. As he carried on his way, the crying voice of the woman followed him, slowly diminishing before being swallowed by the cacophony of the terminal. The Scarolen would become someone else’s problem. Despite the madness in the woman’s words and her blasphemous inclinations, Blackwood could not help but turn her words over in his mind as he approached the platform. Overhead, hanging from a chain bound to a pole-arm, an oval sign indicated platform six. In the near distance Blackwood could see the sign for platform seven looming above the concourse. Playing on the fears of the people was not a new invention. It was one of the oldest ploys in man’s handbook of schemes. For now, the Scarolen were nothing but a pest in Gotheim, a sect of priests who refused to follow the Bishop King and his Church when the exodus from the city occurred. They were fear-mongers and nothing more, but the Citadel was watching them, and if the time came when their meddling became threatening, the Scarolen would be dealt with in a swift manner and with the utmost ease. The leader of the Scarolen was still a mystery—undoubtedly a strategic decision—and their exact cause remained unannounced. All that was known of the rogue priests and priestesses was their gospel of doom and their willing acceptance of a coming apocalypse. Nihilists and heretics, Blackwood thought.
He approached the top of the stairs that led down to platform seven. A line of people already stood along the platform saying goodbyes or waiting their turn to board the stationary train. Engineers and train personnel walked up and down, inspecting the impressive machine. At the head of the platform, a group of uniformed officers, the train managers, stood closely together whilst they examined a set of charts between them. Blackwood descended the stairs, the heels of his boots clicking against the metal of each step. The doomsday priest’s words irked him. What did the Scarolen know about darkness? The woman’s words were spoken out of ignorance and perhaps madness, but she touched on a truth the Citadel kept sealed behind its great walls. There was still darkness in the world and it was the business of the Inquisition to hunt what lurked behind that veil. Blackwood reached the platform and walked towards the train, ignoring the stolen glances of people. The train managers paused briefly from their discussions, their intelligent eyes quickly taking in the double-cross hanging from his chest before returning their attention to the charts in their hands. The inquisitor regarded the people as he passed them by, and contemplated their naivety. As he had come to see it, the world was a giant moth. At first glance, it seemed unimpressive and ordinary. Upon the surface of its fluttering wings, the lives of the common folk created complex and delicate patterns as they lived from day to day, carrying on with their natural pursuits, navigating their way through the meander of existence. The acceptance of peace and their belief that the darkest days had passed were a perfect mimicry of how things had been before the Wars of Religion. The people wanted calm. They wanted ordinary lives. A century of strife and violence fostered the strongest appetite for the mundane. Yet, beneath the patterns of mimicry, on the underside of those delicate wings, resided the foul dust of an ancient evil and the fine veins that spread its poison. Blackwood had seen the face of that underbelly. He had seen what monsters lay in wait beneath the surface of the peaceful world. All around him the elderly, parents with their children and folk deeply wrapped in the clutches of their own youth busied themselves with their affairs, unaware that the darkness they chose to forget still lingered in the world. Deep within the secret chamber of his heart, Blackwood had come to believe the darkness would always be there. It was as intrinsic to the world’s existence, as the world was to its. Good and evil. Light and darkness. These were the two ends of the scale that balanced all things. How long had he spent on the side of darkness? The question seemed to present itself to him more often. Perhaps it had to do with his age. There is only so much time one can spend in the company of darkness, before it leaves its touch on you. Veronica had said that to him, all those years ago. He quickly pushed the memory of her and those thoughts from his mind. She didn’t understand the nature of the darkness either. Veronica. The Scarolen. He looked up and down the platform. These people. How could they understand what they had never witnessed.
A whistle from the top of the platform drew everyone’s attention away from what they were doing. A call from an engineer on the other end signalled the last preparations for the train’s departure. People hurried. Blackwood watched as a father shepherded his children into one of the train cars. A pair of lovers hurriedly concluded their farewell. Blackwood paused to look at the two youths for a moment. The tenderness and innocence shared between them seemed alien to him. He turned and made his way to the entrance of the train car. Large clouds of white steam began to drift down the platform as the train crew began to prepare the locomotive. Blackwood took hold of the railing and mounted the first step into the car. He glanced over his shoulder one more time and looked at the couple as they lingered in each other’s arms. There was light between them. There was love. He examined them with his dark, brooding eyes. The young man cradled his lover’s gentle face and she rested her gloved hands gently on his hips. There was a degree of decorum between them, Blackwood observed. They resisted the urge to smother each other, to behave inappropriately. These were the signs of high society. Blackwood noticed the happiness that shone in their eyes and lightened their faces. Compared to his dark eyes and hard face, they seemed bright and glorious. Blackwood relished their youth, for where he was going there would be no brightness or happiness. The borderlands awaited him and he would only find darkness and fear there.