Jonas Sims rarely crossed the Thames to go to Westminster. But the lure of being nearer the high and mighty was strong, even if he wasn’t going to the best parts. The real reason was that Ira Heard had a day off… and so did he.
Born in the last years of the previous century, the two of them had grown together in the slums of Covent Garden, to the north of the area. They’d dutifully learned all of the matters and manners taught in the King’s Schools, until their 14th year. But, having shown no great ability to the letters or anything else, they’d been unceremoniously pushed out and their respective mothers made clear that they were expected to fare for themselves.
Jonas had ended apprenticed to a leatherworker who had established itself in Lambeth Marshe after the second bridge joined the borough to the main London. Ira had ended being a serving boy in an up-and-coming merchant house in Westminster. Despite the separation, they’d managed to sneak and meet each other when permitting, and go and enjoy the sights of London, which were endlessly new in this modern era.
This particular day, Jonas’ master, one Williams Oakden, had taken ill. Rather than let his apprentices work unsupervised, he’d thrown them out for the day and the next, until his medicines had taken effect and restored him, if not to full health, at least to enough to reopen his shop. As for Ira, the Morvells had moved north of London to visit relatives, and he’d found himself without much to do for the week.
The two clasped their arms, in the manner of the Great Ones. The gesture was popular these days, in imitation of the Professionals’ traditional greeting. These mighty figures had reasons to clasp in such a manner beyond simple greetings, but more and more of the population of the British Empire, and London in particular, had taken to the hand over wrist gesture.
“So how are you with that Morvell girl? Still being harassed?”
“Nah. These days, she’s got more on her mind to complain about service all the time. Parents have started shopping seriously for a husband.”
“Thought they had one in mind already?” asked Jonas.
“They had, but the lucky bastard managed to get tested and he qualified for a Profession in the Labyrinth. So he’s no longer interested in marrying her,” explained Ira.
“Professional is the new Lord,” smirked Jonas.
A shadow fell over the pair. They craned their necks to look up and spotted not only one, but no less than three skyships hovering and manoeuvring over London. Jonas remembered the glorious launch of the HMS Skyforged, the first of his class. Oakden has wanted to see it, and since he never left his shop unsupervised, his apprentices had followed him to the Sky Docks near the Isle of Dogs, where the commissioning ceremony had been held by King George III. The behemoth lifting and starting to move over London’s skies had been an uplifting experience, a triumph of British ingenuity – and one more sign of the modern age fuelled by the Labyrinth.
“They sure are busy today,” remarked Ira.
“No idea why they brought three skyships to London. Don’t they patrol near the shores?”
“Who knows. I hope the French don’t use the opportunity.”
“As if the French Hordes would dare do anything. Too afraid of the British’s might.”
“You never know what Napoleon will do. He’s gobbled up all of Europe, and he’s been looking at us for years,” mused Ira.
Jonas shrugged. Who knew what would go thru the French Tyrant’s twisted mind.
“So what’s the plan?”
“I hear they’ve moved the perimeter out a hundred yards. You nearly cannot see them anymore.”
Gatespotting was the lads’ favourite pastime. In fact, it was London’s general favourite. Even 17 years after the opening of the Gilded Gate of London, people still gathered to gawk upon the sight, hoping to see movements, or even spot some major Professional teams going in or out of the Labyrinth. Even material transfers, for all their mundanity, satisfied the craving for all things Labyrinth-related.
They started up northward. While the banks of Westminster weren’t rich by the standard of the rest of the borough, you could still spot modernity arriving everywhere. Crystal-fuelled fountains, and the odd horseless carriage in the streets.
Upon arriving at the Queen’s gardens, they found their fears unfounded. The platforms that a handful of fellows had built years ago for the edification of the populace were at the same place. While slightly crowded, there was enough room that the lads could climb and jostle to the front and watch across the park.
From there, you could see the immense Gilded Gate. A perfect circle of bronze-golden metal, nearly thirty yards wide. While the fine details were a bit too small to make from the stands, one could see the sculpted heads of dozens of creatures, from simple wolves to weird chimeric beasts. The latter looked out of fantastic stories of King Arthur’s Knights, but everyone knew you could find the real ones within.
Lots of soldiers were milling near the gate, and the traffic seemed unusually light.
“Seems strange? I don’t remember that many soldiers around.”
“Maybe there’s some major noble going to the Labyrinth? Maybe a royal? I heard that Princess Charlotte is a Professional.”
“The granddaughter, not the daughter,” added Ira, seeing Jonas’ frown.
“Good for her then. The way things go, nobody’s going to succeed King George for a long time. Not with his own Professional healer.”
There was a commotion behind. Jonas didn’t pay too much attention until Ira pulled him by the sleeves. He turned to look at the street behind and gawked.
Four… no, five people walked. The crowds parted like the fabled Red Sea, as no one wanted to go close. In truth, they looked more real than the crowds. Or even the street itself.
In front walked a woman, wearing full plate armour. The copper-and-bronze engravings over the shine of cast steel made even more obvious the high quality of the gear. Her attire was completed by an enormous two-handed sword, almost as tall as her, that she carried flat over her shoulder. Jonas could see a hint of light playing over the blade.
To her sides walked another woman in long flowing robes of midnight black, with light grey lines tracing complex patterns joining her sleeves to mid-arm. She seemed to wear deep blue gloves, and rather than a hat, had a deep red silken band tied around her head, letting the blond hair shine. On the other side, a man wore a green leather attire, full of straps, studs, and chain links. Twin swords were at his sides in scabbards.
Behind, closing the procession were two more people. One couldn’t be identified whether male or female. The hooded figure could have been taken for some monkish penitent, if not for the fact that the woollen robe was of a red at the bottom going to a more orange colour at the cowl. Even the engraved staff was floating at the end of the sleeve without any visible hand holding it, although the movement suggested the presence of one.
The last man seemed the most mundane of the lot. Simple trousers, boots and an embroidered tunic straight out of the Navy made his garb. But he was wearing a half-mask of black-and-white tinted leather, split diagonally. His left side was uncovered up to above the ear, the right one was covered down to his mouth.
“Bollocks. Professionals. High tier ones, I’d wager,” whispered Jonas.
“What are they doing here? I’d expect such as them at the Gate, or going wherever, not wandering around the Gardens.”
Jonas looked more carefully and felt a cold feeling crawl on his back. The three in the front were more obvious about it than the hidden monk and the last fellow, but they were casting glances at the sides, taking stock of everything. It was a look he’d seen before.
It was the kind of look one saw when the coppers went into Covent Garden for a raid on some illegal den that overstepped its bounds and expecting trouble to jump on them.
“Ira? I think we should go away…”
“They’re looking for something. And if high tier Professionals are trying to find something here, I don’t want to be there when they find it.”
“You sure?” asked Ira.
The squad stopped in place. A man had stepped in the street, putting himself in their path. He looked ordinary, with well-worn clothes that would have marked someone as an ordinary fellow, maybe some cobbler or something. But once he’d stepped out of the crowd, there was no mistaking the feeling of more-than-real that started to come out.
The lead armoured woman looked with a frown for a few seconds.
“Well, well. Jacques Deschanel.”
“You have ze honour on me, Madame… Cowen. I am surprized that you can ascertain ze poor myself.”
The man’s accent sent alarms into Jonas’ brain. A Frenchman Professional? Here in London. And a Professional Team looking for him. That didn’t sound good. Not good at all.
“I found handy to grab and keep a few Watcher skills,” was Cowen’s reply.
The man opined, seemingly appreciating the idea.
“Now, if you please, I’d rather bring you intact for interrogation. As you can guess,” she said, pointing upward to the sky where the skyships still manoeuvred, “we had an idea someone might be showing up.”
Seeing as the man did not make any move, she added: “You might be a fancy newly minted tier 7 from what I see, but you stand no chance on your own against a full team.”
“Ah, but see. I am not ‘on my own’…”
And with these words, a massive pillar of fire fell upon the street, striking in the middle of the British team.
Everyone screamed and started to run away. Jonas and Ira jumped over the platform, kneeling behind to put themselves out of sight of the battle that was starting. They were not the only ones, dozens had scrambled to the nearest protected place.
“Bollocks! A sorcerous battle between Professionals! In the middle of London!” wailed Jonas.
Ira was looking paler by the second.
“Did she call him… a tier 7? Isn’t that like the highest ever?”
“Don’t know, don’t want to know,” said Jonas.
A massive sound, like a trump that heralded the call to Armageddon, sounded from the other side of the platform. A massive flash of light came, nearly blinding. From behind cover, Jonas could see squads of soldiers running toward the commotion. He fervently hoped those were Professionals and not basic soldiers. For normal soldiers to intervene in a high tier fight… you’d need an entire army and ready to risk massive losses.
The cowering people behind the stand looked at each other, seeking reassurance. Jonas saw a girl, probably no older than him, white as a sheet. Behind her, a slightly younger boy clung to her. A middle-aged man sweated what seemed like gallons.
The stand shook. There were sounds of swords clashing, multiples. Jonas hadn’t seen any in the Frenchman’s hands, but even if he had one hidden, there was no way he’d be making all that noise. Probably. Which means he wasn’t lying when he said he wasn’t alone.
“Balls. We need to move. We’re too close.”
“That way!” said Ira, pointing out toward the incoming soldiers.
“It’s away from that. And they’ll be too busy to bother with us. And we’ll have those soldiers between us and those Professionals,” said Ira breathlessly.
The two boys looked at each other, sprang, and started running away from the stands. Jonas risked a look behind him. Flames were raging everywhere, parts of a building over the street looking like it had been blown away. Arcs of lightning, like a storm up close, flashed over the billowing smoke and dust. Jonas saw a flash of a massive sword – Cowen’s? – swinging and sparks flying as it met a blade that seemed to have pale blue crawling over it.
Then a man, wearing ordinary clothes stepped over the stand. He raised his hand, and Jonas saw wires of brass and crystals embedded in circlets pulsing over his arm. A sound, like a humming choir, was starting to rise. The people still crouched behind the stand freaked and started to flee. A handful took their cue from the duo and started running toward them, while others were running along the line of platforms.
The boys turned and ran as fast as they could. When they reached the incoming soldiers, one of them started to intercept them, then thought better and kept running, readying his musket as he went.
A massive blast echoed and they were thrown on the ground by the compressed air. Jonas raised himself off the ground and risked a look again. Three Frenchmen were coming toward the soldiers. A number of those were on the ground, injured by whatever had been made that blast. From the cloud over the street came the black-robed woman. The British Professional raised her hand and fired away bolts of lightning but one of the French turned and made a gesture and a pale green transparent wall rose to block the lightning.
“Behind the Gate! The Gate is indestructible. Nothing can pass it directly!” said Ira.
They and the dozen people who had caught up with them ran as fast as they could. The girl he’d seen behind the stands ran fast, despite her skirts. The boy that had been grasping her was nowhere to be seen. For a fraction of seconds, Jonas thought that odd, but he then realized that the boy might have been completely unrelated to her. Just clinging to the nearest person from fright. Another woman didn’t fare that well, slipping steadily behind the group before tripping over her skirts and falling to the ground.
Nobody waited for her.
As they were nearing the gate, a group of soldiers detached themselves from the main company and moved to intercept them. Then, they slowed as a sound rose, like a hammer on an anvil. Light started to pulse above the fleeing group. The soldiers coming toward them stopped and looked beyond the cluster of fleeing civilians.
He turned back and the sight filled him with dread. Two of the Frenchmen had raised their arms, pointing toward them. No, toward the Gate itself. Bars of light came from the brass contraptions, pulsing with a slowly rising intensity. One accomplice was planted squarely in front of them, raising more of the greenish walls as the surviving soldiers discharged muskets.
They ran toward the Gate, desperate to put themselves to safety.
From close, Jonas could see the Gate opening proper. The metal circle was filled with a cool, steady light. Despite its intensity, that light didn’t blind him. The description of people saying it felt like looking into the entrance of Heaven were not entirely exaggerated.
“Go! Everyone, behind it! We’ll be safe!”
Jonas started to doubt Ira’s conviction. As they closed with the Gate amidst the chaos, he could see the bars of light striking the entrance. The Gate seemed unaffected, but it was obvious to him that, whatever the French were trying to do, their target was the Gate.
If they could cripple the Gate… the French Hordes might end getting the upper hand over their British rivals. It was the only thing that might have brought them to risk their own highest tier Professionals in the heart of Empire.
But for now, their best bet was to put the Gate between them and the rampaging Professional battle behind and keep running.
As they slipped to the side, Jonas saw the Gate light flicker. It was as if the Sun itself had blinked. Not only that but…
Transit: Earth 113 - Grailburg
… for a second, something like a ghostly sign had slipped over his view. It was gone as fast as it came, leaving him unsettled. Because the numbers had seemed to change… to drop.
As they sped behind the gate, a whine began, a sound he’d heard once as a power crystal had spiralled out of control and discharged its energies. He risked a glance to the Gate, and gasped, slowing as he beheld the inner light. It was pulsing, growing and shrinking fast like a drum’s surface. It was as if there was a storm raging over water that somehow a vertical wall.
“COME!” yelled Ira, turning and reaching with his hand.
The Gate erupted, the liquid light spilling over Jonas’ entire world.
Transit: Earth 113 - Ḡŀầốƃɨṟǵ
Vincent Archer wrote his first story around age 11. On a mechanical typewriter, with carbon paper for a mimeograph to distribute in class. His teacher knew enough to make vague encouraging noises rather than really tell him what she thought. He wrote more stories afterward, but Time has thankfully managed to erase every trace of them.
Now that his career has settled in a mix of routine and insanity and that he's figured out that herding cats would probably be easier, he's finally started to write stories again on a media rather than inside his brain. Some of those are even potentially good enough to show to other people.
Silvergates is his first attempt to finish one rather than admit defeat against the usual writer's block.