Sanity is a lone voice crying in the desert.
The world is under increasing threat from as yet undiscovered sources of icefire, but all the people who have answers are cut off from the authorities, kings or councils, with the power to mobilise the scientists and armies to keep the world safe.
Young meteorology student Javes is stuck in the remote desert of the north. The area bristles with technology of an ancient past, but he cannot tell anyone about it because roads and telegraph lines have been cut by bad weather and invading bandits.
Lana, a fellow student, is on her way to meet him, but Aranian soldiers raid the bus that she’s travelling on. She is taken to the capital to serve at the king’s court.
THE CAMEL PLODDED over the crest of the hill late in the afternoon, when the low sunlight cast long shadows over the dry fields that surrounded the town of Ysherra. At this time of day, the barren soil turned orange and the light, soft and hazy.
After having been away for what felt like a long time, Javes was surprised how familiar this terrain looked to him. Compared to the untamed country of the windwalkers, this piece of miserable land with its stubble fields and sparse olive trees was oddly civilised.
He had, he realised, enjoyed himself in the desert, and the objects he had taken from Karlen’s cave would help him in his research. His experience would help him return to the windwalkers later on.
He rode past the olive groves and the white-painted house of the grumpy old fellow who lived in the valley with the goat farm. He knew the fellow would be watching from behind the curtains, but he didn’t show himself. Javes rode past the sprawling house on the top of the hill that belonged to the town administrator. This man was the only person in town who had any money at all, and he liked to flaunt it, with the house’s paved driveway and opulent gate. There were no goats to be seen here, only hideous statues of winged horses and other mythical animals. The proper name of the hill was Sooty Hill because of the dark basalt stone that broke the surface, but townspeople called it Snooty Hill.
When he had passed that opulent house, he rode down the hill into the town of Ysherra, a loose collection of blocky houses interspersed by the odd olive tree. He passed the carpentry business on the edge of town, and the pens where donkeys and goats for sale stood quietly awaiting the early start of tomorrow’s livestock auctions. Next came a metal junkyard and then a seller of agricultural equipment. All these businesses had evidently closed for the night, because there was not a person in sight. A couple of geese crossed the road ahead.
It was odd, because Javes had not known the townsfolk to stick to such city notions as opening times. If there was business to be done, the shops were open, regardless of the time of day.
By the time Javes came to the grocery corner shop, which was also closed, the back of his neck was pricking with suspicion.
The streets were never this quiet. There were never any crows fighting over scraps of food in the middle of the main street at this time. Early evening was when the people came out of their houses after the heat of the day. This was when they would go to the eating houses.
There were no neighbours standing at front fences, watching everyone coming down the road. No children playing, no people going to the bathhouse. No one at the outdoor tables of the tea house either. The only person at the teahouse was the owner, and he was stacking the tables, giving Javes a nervous glance before ducking into the kitchen.
Javes didn’t think that this was about him. He got on well with the teahouse’s owner. He looked over his shoulder.
Behind him, the street was deserted. A crow cawed.
His neck pricked. There was something very, very odd going on.
He stopped the camel and looked around. Everything in town appeared normal, except for there being no people.
He could get off the camel and go into the teahouse to ask the owner what was going on, but he was afraid of becoming involved in yet another problem that wasn’t his, because he already had more problems than he could deal with.
He was tired. He’d just go to Pashtan’s house, which had been his home in Ysherra, and decide what to do tomorrow, after he’d slept. So he kicked the camel’s flanks and it continued walking, even if he sensed he was being followed or observed, and he had no idea who could be watching.
Yet on his way through town, he saw no signs of violence, just closed shops, deserted streets and puzzling emptiness.
Then he turned the corner to the street that led out of town and he could see Pashtan’s house with the familiar olive tree in the front yard.
But what had happened to the neighbour Arukat’s house? The sloping roof was stained with streaks of soot. The front veranda sagged, because the posts that supported the roof had been burned. The side of the house was entirely black, and the shed that formed one boundary of Arukat’s property, and where he stored his metal wares, had fallen in.
Pashtan’s house looked fine, but the side gate was smashed.
Heart thudding, Javes led the camel into the back yard. The goats were all gone. Half the hay bales were missing from the barn and the roof of the shed sagged ominously. Some words were scrawled on the back fence in white paint, but he couldn’t read them. That blocky script was Aranian, wasn’t it?
His heart was thudding.
He tied the camel to the post, righted the water trough, went to the tank—it was empty, because someone had made a large hole in the side.
Well . . . damn it.
There was still a good amount of water in the water bags, but the trough was too big to waste it, so Javes ventured into the shed to find a bucket—and someone had trashed the inside of the shed and left a big, stinking turd in the middle of the floor.
Ugh. What sort of barbarians had been here?
Aranians. Whatever they were doing here. Even in Tiverius, people knew there were no border patrols in this area.
What was the point of this destruction? Where were all the people?
A dark feeling came over him.
What to do? Was this place still safe?
First, he needed to rest and feed the camel. Reorganise himself and decide the best path to take. He needed a bucket to let the camel drink.
Pashtan’s tools had been ripped from their hooks on the walls and lay on the ground. The broom handle was broken. Spare lampshades and glass jars for preservatives lay in shards on the floor.
The buckets, though, were metal and unscathed except for a few dents.
Javes picked one up and went back outside. From the step to the door of the shed, he could see over the fence into Arukat’s yard. All his sheds along the back and side fence had been burned. Any scrap metal that had not burned and twisted into useless heaps had been flung everywhere. The sand cart was gone, and so were the donkeys. The veranda at the back of the house sagged, and the chairs where Arukat and his wife would sit at night had been slashed so that the stuffing came out of the cushions. The door stood open and the windows were broken.
Arukat’s water tank lay on its side. It normally stood in the corner of the yard.
There was no sign of life. No donkeys, no chickens, no goats, no geese.
With a sick feeling in his stomach, Javes wondered what had happened to the family.
He brought water to the camel, took all the packs off the saddle and carried them to the back door—and when he put down the water bags, he could hear the bleating of a kid. Inside the house?
He carefully opened the door. Something leaned against it that made a scraping sound over the floor as he pushed it aside. It sounded like the table. Before the door was far enough open for him to go in, a goat squeezed itself out. It ran into the yard, bucking, leaping and kicking its back legs. Two more hairy heads stuck out of the door.
He recognised the brown- and black-spotted goat and the grey one as Pashtan’s. The third was white and had to be someone else’s. How had they ended up locked inside? Unless . . . someone had deliberately locked them in.
He called at the door. “Hello? Hello, anyone there?”
There was no reply, so he pushed the door further. The rest of Pashtan’s goats, or at least most of them as far as he could see, also ran out, accompanied by two more white goats.
And then, nothing.
The door gaped like a dark maw. In the waning light, Javes could only see a small portion of the floor, strewn with goat droppings.
He grabbed the bottom half of the broken broom: a short stick with the broom head on one end, and on the other a jagged, splintered piece of wood. He wasn’t sure what end to hold in front. The broom head would be most effective against an irate goat, but if there was something else, he might want the sharp end of the stick.
Carefully, he advanced into the house.
He could see next to nothing in the darkness. The air smelled of goat and fire. The thing that had been behind the door was indeed the table, and he almost tripped over the chair that went with it.
He stopped, waiting for his eyes to get used to the dark.
A small sound came from the left side of the room.
His heart was thudding. That noise sounded too big to be made by a goat.