Chapter One; Section One

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The crowd was frantic – almost violent. Their roars roiled, rolled and echoed down the city’s street like a savage beast, as the people chanted for their king and his champions. Though it was yet early, many were already high on drink and bravado. All along the parade route there were boasts and tall tales about the parts people had played – how, in truth they were the heroes and it was them who should be honoured. Here and there exuberance overflowed. The city guard, well aware of how quickly a crowd could become a mob, were taking no chances, lashing out indiscriminately with truncheons and the flat of their blades at any hint of trouble. But this crowd was no meek thing. After many years of war they had learned not to take anything lying down. Coil could see at least half a dozen brawls through the gap between the shutters.

As if they somehow sensed the violence to come.

But no, that couldn’t be. It must just be the scale of the Aberfell’s achievements that had everybody on edge. The reasons for today’s parade – the unification of the Borderlands and conquest of the unconquerable city – were, after all, no mean feats. Not so long ago anybody who would have suggested this little back-water nation could have done what it had, would have been called a fool. It must be that which was making the crowd giddy; that and the bright sun up on high – a sight that, courtesy of the Krull, hadn’t been seen for what seemed an age. Only last night the clouds had been thick and the snow heavy. Today, however, nothing marred the deep blue sky. Today the Winter Warlocks had temporarily suspended their weather siege.

It made for a spectacular view. For a time at least, the snow concealed the filth, the debris and the city’s stench. In their place lay a sheet of sparkling, fragile whiteness that sharply offset the blood-red banners wielded by the cheering crowd.

Red gashes against virgin snow.

Coil remembered such parades from his younger years, back in Northvale. They had always been good days – back before all this, back when all he’d wanted was to become an alchemist and eventually take over Master Ubud’s business. Those days were gone now. The business had burned down, the town was uninhabited and Master Ubud was dead. But then, like they said, the way to make the Gods laugh was to tell them your plans. Those bastards had a sick sense of humour.

Would he ever stand in such a crowd again? Doubtful. Even if he lasted out this day, even if he managed to survive the uprising, even if the rebellion was somehow successful, he’d still be a persona non grata. After all, who would trust him? Who would forgive him? Hell, he doubted he’d be able to forgive himself! There were children down there. But there were always children down there. That had never stopped them. In fact they’d probably laughed, they’d probably applauded as the little ones were torn limb from limb. For a moment the dark thoughts threatened to rise up and overwhelm him. He fought them down. Don’t think about that! Now is not the time!

As he adjusted his hood his hand momentarily caught the light between the shutters – the only light in the room. Dust mites danced around his remaining three fingers and swirled about the stumps and scar tissue that marked what had gone before. The wound still hurt him sometimes – when the weather was cold. But thanks to the Krull, today there was no pain. Life was all about such small blessings. They were the only ones he had left.

Across the way, upon a roof, unnoticed by the crowd below, several darkly clad figures were making furtive preparations; unwrapping wands, polishing rune-staffs, preparing spell scrolls and quaffing mana potions. He knew that above him another team was mirroring their actions. As no alarm had yet been raised their actions remained undiscovered. All was as it should be.

Down below the parade was coming into view. Armour, arms and the King’s crown, a crown Coil knew well, glinted in the winter’s sun. Pennants flapped in the morning breeze. Some flags were clean, others torn; the former belonged to the victors the latter the vanquished. Half of the parade sat their saddles straight garbed in furs and gold; the other half stumbled, bent shoulders weighed down with manacles and chains.

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