(1-1) The hard things asked

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There is no night in the Everburning City.

There can never be.

Well past dusk, the City was bathed in the glow of red firelight. It cut through walkways and bathed the streets, chasing the darkness behind buildings and the into the narrowest alleys. And as if to chase out the darkness entirely, thousands of torches burned from lampposts and exhaust pipes, illuminating every corner and narrow passage.

And without night, the City never sleeps.

The Everburning City was, is, and always will be kept alight by its heart; a knife-wound to the laws of reality that rose from the ground and cleaved the sky. This column of flame; so bright it sears the eyes of anyone who watches too long, was made hundreds of years ago to ward its denizens from the mists beyond the walls.

This column of flame that towers over mountain and cloud is known to the citizens of the City as the Spire. It is a wound cut into the unknowable power beneath the earth; a night so potent the barest skimming of its immense power was enough to keep the City burning through the last four hundred years.

Dust and ash coat the street, a fine film of pulverized rock and powdered cinders that clings to glass windows and lamp covers even as it squeezes into the crevices of the streets and seeps into clothing. The air tasted of soot and the acidic scent of torched metal stung at the nose. Hammers and grinding wheels belted their simple, relentless grunts and screams into the air, competing with the hum of trains to make the grim, cruel music of industry. All of this noise was accompanied by the quiet, muffled cry of the fire itself, as thousands of lamps, torches, exhaust ports and distribution pipes echoed the distant, furious howling of the Spire at the heart of the Everburning City.

There wasn't quite enough dust on the streets for Inspector Samuel Fraser to leave footprints, as he made his way towards Billows Station.

Up ahead, a gout of flame was belched out into the street, briefly competing with the distant Spire to illuminate the street. The blast was large enough that it had to push itself through the industrial door and bloomed into the street, before it burned itself out a heartbeat later.

"The Billows District," Samuel muttered to himself. The name was deserved.

It was a short walk; the precinct was barely fifteen minutes from the station, but it was just long enough for the ominous implications of the dispatch his comm officer had received to sink in.

He still carried the message, written hastily by a nervous girl still learning the complexities of signal code. The note was partially illegible from her frantic scribbling, and she had apologized profusely as she wrote the message a second time.

Samuel stopped for a moment, took the note out of his pocket and read it again.

Inspector Fraser to Billows Station. Situation grave.

'Situation Grave' was a code phrase in the orderlies for the second most serious incident they could be called out to attend. It usually meant mass murder or arson in a residential building. The only higher priority was an ongoing calamity. Samuel had only seen the highest priority once in his life, and the odds were good he would never see it again.

But he had lived through it, two years ago. Dragon fire and airship cannons, the rage of living flame and towers shattered like toy blocks against the wrath of an angry child.

Samuel shuddered, and clutch at his coat. He felt chilled, despite the warmth of the fires and his own exertions, and he bit at his lip to try and help himself focus.

Another corner brought him to the bottom of the wide stairway that leads up to the station. He slowed to a walk when he saw a pair of soldiers at each side the stairwell, their uniforms and equipment unnaturally clean despite the dust saturating the air.

Samuel noticed both soldiers turn their attention to him; their stances shifting subtly as they rolled their shoulders. The tubes of metal on their backs moved just a little, so that the straps were set against the edge of their shoulders.

Samuel's eyes widened, and his heart beat a little faster. Those were guns on their backs. Salamanders.

Carefully, Samuel reached into his coat pocket, and took his badge into his hand before he started to approach.

"Inspector Samuel Fraser of the Orderlies," he said, holding his badge out. "I was summoned."

One of the soldiers nodded and gestured up the stairway with her thumb. "Up that way, inspector."

As Samuel passed by, he noticed the soldiers' uniforms for the first time. Dark blue, unlike the usual greyish black of the regular army. Both of them had pips denoting a fairly significant rank for an enlisted soldier. Samuel wasn't sure, but he believed they were both junior sergeants. And within that rank emblem, where there was usually a number to display which division they were attached to, was only a hoop with a rising sun surrounded by a halo of fire.

"Need something?" The other soldier asked, noticing Samuel's regard.

The two of them were lean, their eyes were as hard as anyone Samuel had ever seen, and their casual posture despite their weapons spoke of a deep familiarity with violence.

"You two don't look like the usual grease-monkeys the army keeps around here," Samuel said. "What company are you with?"

The soldier only pointed up in response.

Samuel followed the suggestion and looked up.

Steel glimmered in the sky, as the hull of a metal ship hung in the air above the platform. The ship loomed as if suspended in time, as unmoving as the buildings around it. It hung beneath a massive canvas bag that seemed to glow beneath the swirls of black that wrapped around it like tendrils of smoke.

At the edge of the deck, Samuel could see the ends of the ship's half-dozen guns poking out into the open air.

Samuel remembered those guns. He remembered their howl.

"Airship core," Samuel remarked aloud, shrugging to cover his own discomfort.

"Did you eat recently, inspector?" the soldier asked.

That wasn't the first time Samuel had been asked that question, before heading into a crime scene. But it was the first time he was asked that question by a face as thoroughly stripped of humour as the soldier in front of him.

"No," Samuel said quietly.

"It's probably better that you didn't. It's bad up there, inspector."

Samuel nodded, and despite his better judgement, marched up the stairs.

More soldiers loomed at the top, but they waved him through without speaking. Most of them had rags around their noses, and were keeping a significant distance between themselves and whatever was waiting in the middle of the station platform.

Samuel stepped past the soldiers, and the smell hit him.

He'd been hit by bar thugs who couldn't swing as well as the stench that struck at his nose. Seared flesh and the acidic tang of torched hair, the bitter scent of still smouldering fabric. The smell brought him to his knees, and he felt his stomach try and throw itself out through his throat.

Samuel took a few slow, easy breaths, and waited until the worst of it passed before he tried his feet again. When he could focus, he stepped forward into the space, where three figures could be seen standing among more than a dozen fallen forms.

Samuel did quick count in his head.

Fourteen. By the abyss and its fires.

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