Andrea leant on the wooden gatepost and caught her breath. The street that she and Dax were walking along was actually a hill, and it was steep. There was a warning cracking sound, and she snatched her arm away and caught her balance again as the top of the gatepost snapped off, a cloud of dust rising as tiny orange splinters of wood cascaded downwards. The top of the gatepost smashed apart when it hit the stone-flagged street leaving an orange smear across the weathered surface. She grimaced and rubbed her arm, checking to see if the orange had stained her clothes.
“The whole city is rotten,” said Dax, looking around them. “We’ve not found anything in here that isn’t either rotted away or rotting away. This is a tainted place.”
“Well, duh!” said Andrea crossly. She heaved a huge breath in, but it didn’t do much to get her breath back. “It’s been abandoned for over four hundred years. Were you expecting maybe industrious ghosts keeping the city all shiny and tidy?”
“I’ve met ghosts,” said Dax. His tone was level, matter-of-fact.
“And probably killed them, too,” said Andrea. “I keep meaning to ask you if there’s any living thing in this world that you haven’t killed, or tried to kill, at some point.”
Dax allowed a thin smile to break his wrinkled face. “If I find any such thing,” he said, “I’ll be sure to catch it as a trophy to show people.”
Andrea looked up the street towards the top. The buildings below them were smaller and less impressive; all the big, polished-looking buildings were clustered around the top.
“Well I know how this place defended itself,” she said. “It just retreated up the hill and then let the attackers wear themselves out trying to get up there.”
“The alleys here are ideal for ambushes,” said Dax, pointing. Andrea looked at him until he stopped.
“That doesn’t cheer me up,” she said. “What if this place isn’t as abandoned as we think it is?”
“It’s cursed,” said Dax. “Though you didn’t exactly make that clear when I hired on, did you?”
“Enough already! I know what you think of my hiring speech, I’ve been listening to you moan about it for days!”
“It’s still cursed though.”
“Well sort of, but not really. It was dedicated to the third Lord of the Grey, and when his time passed the City seems to have collapsed as well. Oddly quickly. Which is why we’re here, to find out what happened.”
“Really? It isn’t obvious?”
“Humour me,” said Dax, smiling his thin smile again.
“Fine. Because we live in the greatest city on the continent, and it is dedicated to the fifth Lord of the Grey. And because there are suggestions that his power might be starting to wane, so there are a few… very rich people who would like to… not lose their position. They want to know what happened here and what’s likely to happen in our city.”
Dax sat down.
“Get up!” she said, kicking at him. He caught her foot and pulled until she fell over and sprawled on the ground next to him.
“I knew about the money,” he said. “I didn’t know about the Theology. Who is making these suggestions?”
“Don’t pull me over!” She sat up and leaned in, glaring into his eyes. He met her gaze and held it, and several seconds later she pulled back and dropped her head, breaking her glare.
“Who is making these suggestions? Andrea?”
“I don’t know,” she said. “As in, I actually don’t know. I know where you can go to hear suggestions like this being made, but you’re risking being in there when they get raided, and they get raided a lot. The priests definitely don’t like the suggestions –“
“–and we have a religious police force.” Dax completed the sentence for her. “Just how little have you told me about what this trip is all about?”
She squirmed. “Most of it,” she admitted at last. “Some of it is on the incredible side and I don’t think… I still don’t think you’d believe it. I’d rather see if some of the less incredible stuff exists first, and then tell you.”
Andrea sighed. “We need to get moving, ok? One of the less incredible stories that’s told is what happens when the sun sets. We need to be indoors, because if that’s true, it’s not going to be safe to be sat out here.”
Andrea stood up. “Fine. There should be a museum of some kind up at the top of this hill, near the palaces and the houses of the Aristocracy. Somewhere in there is a four hundred year old picture of our current Queen.”
Dax stood up next to her now. “That would be worth seeing,” he remarked. “That might convince me some more to listen to you.”
“I’m not telling you everything!”
“We’ll see. By the way, though I’m sure you slept well last night, were you aware that the buildings of the city all glow in the dark?”