After a years-long sojourn in foreign lands, a company of soldiers returns home to the Great City by the Sea. But a joyful homecoming is tainted by a strange sense that something is amiss. The great island nation of Atlantis has stood for a hundred centuries, but now decay and ruin seem to be everywhere, and their Captain, a simple warrior unwittingly embroiled in affairs of state, finds himself investigating the blight that seems to have taken hold in all the kingdoms of mankind.
The Age of Man is falling into twilight: the Age of Wolves is set to begin.
Dawn broke ahead of him, and for the first time he became aware that the dark mass on the horizon was what he’d privately imagined it was: the ragged cliffs of home. He smiled as the pale light washed over him. For the first time in years, the sunrise made sense. He’d spent a long time on the other side of the water, always unconsciously gazing east, always dragged towards his homeland like a lodestone, and now, for the first time, he felt at peace. He worked his hands along the ship’s railing as he leant forward, almost eagerly, like a child. The rolling movement of the vessel still made his stomach churn, but that could also be nerves.
Nerves? Him? After all the battles he’d fought, after all the danger to which he’d quite willingly subjected himself, why should he be nervous now, about returning to his home city? But he’d been away for so long. Almost three years now. He wondered what might have changed. His eyes scanned the horizon, following the grey line of the cliffs southwards, to where they climbed down to the mouth of the estuary. Towers and battlements were visible as dark spires built into the rocks, but as his eyes searched them, he saw that only a handful bore lights. Why would the defences be left ungarrisoned? A feeling of unease began to creep over him as the ship brought them towards the estuary, and the walls of the cliffs slid by. The sun had crested the hills now and the whole world was suffused with golden light. Gulls skirted past, caught in the fierce crosswind and their high cries quickly snuffed out any doubts he had. He almost laughed as the ship banked sharply and a spray of white foam threatened to engulf him. He stepped away from the gunwale and turned to see Lieutenant Morrow emerging from below decks. She yawned expansively and nodded to him. “Captain.”
“We’re nearly home, Morrow,” he said with the barest flicker of a smile.
“I can see that.” She rubbed her eyes and then took up a seat on a small barrel tied securely to the deck. She was a small, compactly-built woman with hair cut raggedly short to fit better into a cavalryman’s helmet. She was the finest rider he’d ever known, nimble and light. She joked hollow bones ran in her family, and he knew she’d been a notorious petty thief – or a street urchin, more like, clambering over roofs and gutters – before the military had found her and given her an honest trade.
He breathed in deeply and exhaled with a loud sigh. “Can you smell that? The sea: calling us home.”
“We’ve been at sea for days,” Morrow pointed out. She was playing idly with a dagger, tossing it high into the air and deliberately turning her head so she had to catch it blind. Despite the movement of the ship, she managed it every time.
“It smells different,” he shrugged. “Don’t ask me why.”
She wrinkled her nose. “All I can smell is the horses.”
His eyes drifted across the deck to where his company’s animals were tied up. The creatures were uncomfortable at sea, but even without that there was only so much the beleaguered crew could do to keep three score horses fragrant when they were tied in place for days at a time. “They’ll be grateful to be on dry land too,” he observed. Some of them had never been on this side of the water; purchased during their long sojourn to replace losses. To him they looked more like ragged little ponies than true chargers like his own mounts, but they’d served well enough, and fresh blood would always be appreciated in the garrison’s stables. “We’ve been away long enough.”
“What’s the first thing you’re going to do?” Morrow asked as she slid her dagger back into her boot and leant forward with one foot propped on a chest. The whole deck was full of cargo in addition to their horses – their weapons, armour, supplies and, of course, the spoils of war.
“I have a few ideas,” he said with another enigmatic smile.
“Oh yeah? Anyone I know?” She waggled her eyebrows at him.
“No. She’d never consort with the likes of you.”
“Sounds like my kind of woman,” Morrow laughed.
He shook his head and turned away, leaning back on the railing. His company would soon find their way out onto the deck with their officers. They’d all spent most of the voyage in the fresh air as much as possible, weather permitting, instead of the dank, musty sleeping quarters below. And now that home beckoned, there’d be a feeling of jubilation. Men and women returning home to sweethearts at long last or, more likely knowing this bunch, brothels and taverns. The wharf wouldn’t know what it hit when his surviving troops – forty-three of the most ruthless and courageous men and women he knew – finally landed. For him, things would be a little different. Once he would have joined them and been only too happy to lose himself in revelry, but he had a long overdue appointment to keep. And besides, he was a Captain now. Captain Rayke Albrihn, commander of the Seventh Light Horse of the Altantian Militia. A soldier. A mercenary. A war hero. And he was coming home, to Atlas, the Great City by the Sea.
As the morning wore on and their course took them into the mouth of the broad estuary that led them to the city, Albrihn’s sense of foreboding returned. The great towers that watched over the entrance were falling into disrepair. They looked abandoned. The battlements also seemed to be falling down, and the engines set upon them looked only fit for kindling. He rubbed his jaw thoughtfully. The ship’s captain seemed to read his mind as he stepped up behind him. “Times are hard,” he said in a soft voice.
“Ten-thousand years these waters have been guarded,” Albrihn said, “and we go away for three and everything falls to pieces?”
“Relax, Captain,” Morrow told him with an easy smile, “who’s going to attack Atlas? The city’s been safe for generations.”
“Then why are we paid to defend it?”
“We’ve been a thousand miles away for the last three years,” she pointed out.
He had no answer for that, so he stalked towards the prow and stood there watching as the cliffs slowly turned into the low rolling hills that flanked either side of the estuary. The tide was high, but when it was out there was little more than a narrow, unnavigable channel running down the centre of a miles-wide expanse of mud and stone. They were like killing fields. Fleets and armies had tried to assault the city by this route in ancient times. The bones of their soldiers were still buried in the muck, and the barnacle-covered wrecks of their long lost ships still presented a hazard in places. It was all invisible now beneath the choppy waters though. And still the ruinous defences that should have stood guard troubled him. Maybe one in five garrisons appeared in residence, with lights still flickering in the towers and the stick-figure soldiers patrolling the walls in the cold morning air. Not enough. But Morrow was right: no one had attacked this city for decades. If it was as the captain said, these defences were always one of the first places to save civic funds. Garrison duty out there was not considered an especially enviable position for militiamen.
They rounded a low headland with a tall lighthouse built on top and Albrihn’s heart seemed to stop as he caught sight of Atlas ahead of them. The city was much larger and grander than anywhere they’d seen in the last three years. Compared to this, the places they’d been looked like clusters of rude hovels. Morrow and the rest of the company were all crowded by the railings too now and, despite her cynicism, she too watched Atlas approach with rapt attention. The docks were a dirty smear above the water, but behind them the grey walls of the city rose up and then the great terraced heap of houses, temples, gardens, citadels, palaces, all climbing high to the glittering Imperial Enclave atop the mountain that gave the city its name. It glowed in the sunlight, a gleaming jewel set amidst green hills. Hundreds of boats bobbed on the waves and, as the estuary narrowed, the traffic became heavier and their rolling cog had to slow down and pick its way through fishing boats and barges laden with barrels and crates and piles of skins and other wares. The ship’s crew exchanged waves and shouts with other boatmen they knew, but it was the soldiers crowding the deck that drew most of the attention. Even without their armour, it was obvious what they were. Their bearing, their scars, attested to a lifetime as warriors, and a ship carrying a company of militia and their horses was an unusual enough sight to provoke stares.
The sun rose higher, and Atlas’s grandeur seemed to fade somewhat. The walls turned dirty grey and Albrihn was dismayed to see the same decay he’d noted in the outlying defences much closer to home. As they edged towards the docks, he saw a large number of abandoned vessels, mouldering hulks just left to rot in the murky water. The unpleasant smell of raw sewage was in the air, even above the stink of the horses. The process of tying up the ship meant the soldiers had to shift out of the way of the crew and there was an awkward period of jostling for space on the busy deck. Albrihn stood to one side, arms folded, watching it all. His eyes narrowed as he beheld the wharf that they were approaching. Rough looking people were milling around, apparently without purpose. Day workers seeking employment, or just vagabonds and drunks perhaps. Atlas always had more than its fair share, but he didn’t remember quite this many. It had only been three years, but he remembered prosperity and happiness, even here. Now there was only a grey, listless feeling to everything. The sky was clear, the sun was shining, but it might as well have been the bitter depths of midwinter.
“What happened?” he asked aloud.
“It’s the same as it ever was, Captain,” Morrow said.
“You think so?”
“Sure.” She grinned easily. “Do you not think it might be just that you had this whole idea in your head of what coming home would be like?”
“And now it’s not living up to it?”
“Don’t be ridiculous.” He shook his head firmly.
“C’mon, sir. You’ve been thinking of this moment for three long years. We all have. Back there, on the mainland, in all those hellholes we fought in, we all dreamed about being back home, where everyone speaks our language and the summer breeze carries the smells of Atlantis over the hills.” She moved her hand across his eyeline, waving her fingers to demonstrate.
“Very poetic, Morrow. But it’s not that…not quite…” He caught sight of something even more unusual then – a row of soldiers standing on the docks, city militia in armour and helmets, with spears propped on their shoulders. He frowned. “Now what’s going on here?”
As the ship was tied up, the soldiers stepped towards them, clearing away the rabble in their path so that they stood waiting for them to unload. The crew didn’t seem alarmed, but Albrihn headed back to the railings and leant over the side. He caught sight of the squad’s leader, a tall, broad woman with a sword at her hip who was barking orders to her men as the gangplank was laid down. He recognised her. “Ho! Tayne!”
She looked up and frowned beneath her helmet. “Who’s that?”
“Don’t you recognise me, girl?”
She took off her helmet and peered at him from beneath tousled red hair. She was a wide-faced woman with freckled skin, from the hill country in south part of the island, not at all like the dark-haired natives of the city and its surrounding provinces. “Albrihn?” She cocked her head at him.
He nodded and headed for the gangplank. As she approached at the opposite end, he caught sight of the knots of rank on her sleeve. “They made you a Captain?”
“You’ve been gone a long time.”
“It feels like it.” He looked around. The crew were tossing some of the less fragile cargo onto the docks and the soldiers were picking through it with the butts of their spears. His own troops watched suspiciously. He held up a hand to placate them. “What is this?” he called down.
Tayn shrugged at him. “Inspection.”
“Plague?” He gave the ship’s captain an accusatory look. “You didn’t say there’d been any sickness.”
“There hasn’t,” Tayn answered from the docks, “thanks to checks like this. No one comes into the city without leave from the garrison.”
“You’ve been gone a long time,” she said again as she bent to a crate and asked a sailor to take off the lid.
Feeling uneasy again, Albrihn walked down the plank followed closely by Morrow. He approached Tayne. “What’s going on, Captain?”
“The law,” she sighed. “I need to see some papers.”
“Like I said, no one enters Atlas without our say-so. We need some identification.”
“You know who I am, Tayne. Have I changed that much in three years?”
She looked up at him with a clear, searching gaze. “A little.”
He grinned lopsidedly and ran a finger down the long scar that now marred the left side of his face. “Not too much I hope.”
“You can never be too careful, Albrihn. I need proof you are who you say you are. You’ll understand soon enough.”
“Will I?” He yanked back his sleeve revealing his enlistment tattoo, faded into his brown skin. The markings of the Twelfth Regiment and the Tenth Company, into which he’d originally been recruited, decades ago. “Good enough?”
“Fine,” she said with a wave. Her gaze switched to Morrow. “And you?”
“Fuck off, Tayne.”
“Do we know each other, Lieutenant?”
“Only by reputation.”
“Just do as she asks,” Albrihn told his second in command. His mood had soured considerably.
Tayne put her arm across his chest as he went to move past. “We need to have you sign off for all these troops and horses before you head to the barracks.”
“I’m not going to the barracks,” he said, pushing her arm aside. He could feel her muscle, but she’d been on guard duty in a city for three years and he’d been in the wilds of the mainlands, fighting for his life. She gave way. “I have an appointment at the Enclave.” He glanced up. The walls obscured the view of the palace on the mountain, but he knew it was up there.
“Why would the Emperor want to have anything to do with you, Albrihn?” Tayne asked incredulously.
He shouldered by. “It’s not with him,” he replied without looking at her.