A Vanished City

LACHLAN MARNOCH | CREATIVES



The superb city of Aresen stands in the highlands of Isol, set inland from the harbours that feed it. A stream of airship traffic shuffles about the multi-towered citadel of the skyport. Skyscrapers of glittering crystal and steel and stone line parkways teeming with exotic plants and sessile tentacled animals, appendages drifting lazily.


A great temple stands at the head of one such park, at the city’s heart. Here worshippers stand before the shrines of their chosen deities, heads bowed. At the park’s opposite end stands a grand bronze-cast statue of a past ruler, several stories tall, her watchful eyes cast outward and her hand resting on the pommel of a sheathed sword. Tourists in the old city wander the ancient walls, heritage sites preserved in memory of the onetime martial functions of the metropolis.


Trains worm their way across the city, through tunnels and over bridges, propelled by no obvious means. On the streets are carts and carriages pulled by robust flightless birds or enormous beetles with twitching antennae, their drivers shouting curses at pedestrians despite strict road-sharing laws. Animal control corners an unwanted wyvern atop a skyscraper, keeping its fanged jaws and knife-sharp claws at the end of their shock-pikes; finally, with a deadly hiss and a flap of its wings, the creature abandons its nest of logs and cast-off scales to soar in search of a new home.


***


Suddenly, an intense light shines from the city centre, somewhere at the edge of the middle park. The light becomes a globe, swelling from a central point, and in a heartbeat it encompasses the entire inner city. It holds steady for a moment before it contracts back to a point and vanishes.


Survivors in the suburbs blink at the lip of a vast, spherical crater, glowing white with residual heat. A horrid wind blows inward to fill the sudden void, then a lesser wave sweeps outward as the air expands from the rising heat. Half a house collapses inward. A man gapes in disbelief at the place where his husband had only moments before sat painting his models, but where he can now see through empty space all the way to the southern hinterlands. There, the upward curve of the absent sphere has cut a concavity into the mountains. A rockfall tumbles from the rim. Spot fires flicker about the crater lip. Sewage lines and water pipes end abruptly at the sphere’s boundary; they pour their contents into the crater, flashing to steam on the cooling ground. Over the next few hours, the glass fades slowly from white to red, then ceases glowing, leaving a surface of fused glass.


***


A response arrives from the Capital, a fleet of airships for a belated defence. It was an attack, they say, a pre-emptive strike. It must have been. From whom, though, they cannot say. Extremists from neighbouring Ereve perhaps, still seething over grievances long-buried by the two governments; or a remote strike from the war-sorcerers of Lysis, the nation’s chief rival in trade. If anybody could develop such a weapon in secret, it was them. Blame flies in every direction. A hole has been torn in the heart of a people, and there must be atonement. But in the days that follow, and then the weeks, no responsibility is claimed, and no invading fleet appears to push its advantage. Humanitarian aid pours in from each of the nation’s neighbours, from long-time rivals and enemies as much as friends. Motives are questioned, but no sinister agenda is identified.


But then, what happened? A random disaster? Surely not. Something so destructive, millions killed in an instant, can’t possibly have been an accident. There’s no sense to that. It must have been part of a plan, part of someone’s plan.


***


At the time of the explosion, finally caving to the demands of its growing suburban population, Aresen was undertaking a vast refurbishment of its public transport systems. Hundreds of contractors were employed to dig tunnels for a new set of train lines. One of these contractors, while casting spells to carve the bathroom for one of the new stations, happened upon an ancient bunker hidden in the bedrock. It was a remnant from ages prior, built when the peoples that built the city above were stone-age hunter-gatherers patrolling a distant steppe. The sealing spell, improperly cast, was long-degraded, and the bunker door – once the rubble was cleared with a telekinetic blast — swung open at the worker’s touch.


Stacked to the ceiling, cast in long shadows by his mage-light, were artefacts he couldn’t recognise as weapons; vials of liquid bubbling lazily, diadems tipped with gleaming gems, sets of armour shaped for bodies with more limbs than he had. He never knew what the white sphere was, propped in a stand carved from obsidian, or what terrible minds had devised it, or for which forgotten war. He couldn’t have known that the trigger mechanism had decayed — the safeguard enchantments, once designed to require input from several people acting together, had short-circuited, bypassing every component but one for recognising the touch of a sentient being. He only knew, with a mind that often pondered the materials of construction, that he must touch that smooth surface, must discover what material could produce such a remarkable lustre. Then he knew nothing.