Chapter Three – Veldanfjoll
Charon was busy on the trading floor. Marshall and Marshall’s latest visit had brought an influx of good trade to Veldanfjoll. They didn’t often visit but when they did, Charon made a killing. People were always desperate to pawn their unwanted trades after the chaos had settled.
Stalls and shops reached off into the distance, swarming over the walls and the ceiling. Hungry buyers buzzed at a honeycomb of products; weapons, armour, clothes, exotic delights from other universes. The gentle glow of neon lights coloured the shoppers in pink and orange and purple. Holographic billboards pointed here and there, saying things like ‘Shop here, cheapest guns you’ll find this side of the Nexus!’, ‘Defend yourself against the Optivarr with our tried and tested protections’.
Charon’s stall was a little different. He didn’t have a huge hologram pointing towards the shop with an inviting grin or a glowing neon outline, he had one simple sign that read ‘Charon’s Ferry’. It hung in the air above the stall. It was meant to be a joke, but nobody ever got it.
It looked like there’d be good trading later, he thought, after the general rabble had pawned their cheap, nothing crap and some slightly better-quality crap entered the trading pool.
He leaned back in his chair and nodded at Hawkins, who was sitting on his left, holding his shotgun under his seat and watching the crowd carefully.
‘You see them?’ Charon pointed. ‘Out by Kaza’s shop?’
‘Those three, nervous types.’
Hawkins scanned the crowd huddled around Kaza’s shop. ‘Aye, sir. See ‘em.’
‘You know where they’re from?’
Charon shook his head. Sometimes he felt like he’d been given a gift, other times he was sure everyone else was just stupid.
‘Raikoh’s Free Legion,’ he said. ‘See it?’
Hawkins tried to get a better look at them. ‘Nah, sir. I don’t see how you see it. How’d you figure they’re Free Legion?’
‘The way they walk, the way they look at things, even the way they look at each other. There’s something about that lot, you can always tell it’s them. Same with the Veil. There’s an air about them, tells you everything you need to know. Free Legion are nervous, like they’re scared if someone sees them, they’ll get in trouble like a bunch of kids out after curfew. Veil strut about expecting stuff for free, expecting us to swoon at their feet. And if you say no, they act like the Circle’s gonna turf you off to Damasceyr, but they’ve got no real power here and everyone knows it.’
Nearby, a sign pointing to its owner’s shop was accosted by a group of soldiers, pointing and laughing at its crooked spine. It swung a huge purple arm at them and knocked several to the floor.
‘We don’t like Veil,’ Hawkins said.
‘But we do like the Free Legion. They pay for what they want and don’t cause trouble. Long as they pay, I don’t really care what else they do. Shame they only ever bring in rubbish, things they’ve scavenged from wrecks or stolen from the Pantheon, but it’s a damn sight better, a damn sight better, than anything any Veil creep’s ever coughed up to me.’
‘Don’t think no-one sees ‘em like you do, sir. They blend in good.’
‘Blending is where they get it wrong,’ Charon explained. ‘They’re trying too hard. It’s like painting camouflage on your face but it’s the wrong colour. If you hadn’t bothered trying to blend in, you probably would’ve. You can’t see it?’
‘Nah, sir. Sorry.’
‘Must be a gift from the Creator,’ Charon said dryly.
He was a sharp trader. If the Creator had given him a gift, he’d find a way to exchange it with a mark-up for the inconvenience.
He tidied up his desk and put away the extra merchandise. There was a buzz around the station today. People were rushing around and there was more shouting than usual. Something big must’ve been on the way, whenever something big was coming the whole station got an adrenaline injection and you could feel it in its background pulse.
The news was blaring about something or other. Maybe a storm? He wasn’t paying attention. The writing ran down and the huge, ghostly holographic faces chattered but he was miles away. If it didn’t affect the shop, he didn’t care. Life was about trade and the war made it profitable. That’s all he concerned himself with.
He was lost in in his thoughts when he heard the word that broke the daydream. He snapped to attention. The faces were speaking again. He saw the word in the writing. He couldn’t believe it. Hawkins was on his feet and staring at the word spilling down through the air.
The Optivarr were back?
Now the story had weight, he was paying attention. Some little cretin was at his stall, he gave them a swift kick and sent them off.
The Optivarr were… active?
There were images of an enormous storm. A gold and green nebula. Forks of lightning crackled in slow-motion across the floating images. He’d never seen anything like it before.
It wasn’t just that it was an awesome sight. He felt in his bones how unnatural it was. This storm was a breach in the universe and he wasn’t sure how that was possible.
‘What – what is that, sir?’ Hawkins asked. ‘It’s making my head hurt.’
‘I’m sure it’s nothing,’ Charon said.
‘But it’s making my head hurt,’ he whined.
The busyness had stopped, nobody was trading now. The enormous crowd that had gathered stared at the news, watching with shared awe and terror, and then the whispers started.
Charon allowed himself a rare moment of weakness and listened closely. It was incredible how quickly stupid ideas formed and spread. They moved at least ten times the speed of good ideas and were blindly accepted about a hundred times quicker.
‘What if they’re here to kill us?’
‘They’d destroy us.’
‘We should abandon Veldanfjoll, they’ll come here next. It could be a culling.’
‘It’s vengeance. Stenror has damned us all.’
Charon chuckled. It didn’t take much to sow paranoia in the Vanguard. Just one image and one word and the panic settled in like a poison. It really spoke volumes about them, about what they thought of themselves.
But they were panicking over nothing. The way he saw it there were four definite facts:
First, the Optivarr had returned. Second, the Optivarr had returned and they were pissed as hell. Third, the Optivarr had returned, were pissed as hell, and somebody was going to die for it. Fourth and finally, if the Optivarr wanted that somebody to be the Vanguard, they’d already be dead.
‘You ever seen ‘em, sir?’ Hawkins asked.
Charon felt a chill in his bones.
‘I can safely say I have been spared that pleasure.’ He wondered if it sounded convincing. Probably not.
‘I wanna see one,’ said Hawkins.
‘Your chances on that front, I think, are worryingly high.’ He considered the image. ‘And rising.’
The image of the storm blazed loudly to the horrified crowd. Charon stroked his bony chin. Fear was a powerful seller. The scared will flock to a strong promise even when they know it’s an empty one.
He could sell Optivarr charms. Optivarr deterrents. Statues to worship them. Pray at this altar to satisfy their bloodlust. Wear this bracelet and be immune to their power. This armour will be your shield against the beast. So much opportunity and possibility. So long as Marshall and Marshall were slow on the uptake, he could drain this goldmine dry.
One of his biggest sellers was the anti-beast incense. It was an easy sell. Rumour was that she ate people for fun and true or not, it made for an easy selling point. Nothing motivates a nervous buyer quite like fear, especially the fear of being eaten alive. He had no idea if the incense actually worked; he hoped he never had occasion to find out.
He sat back in his chair and grinned. This would be a very profitable quarter.
Then the storm hit.
He felt it first. There was a sudden sensation that the station was plummeting and the crowd lurched on their feet.
He grabbed the gun he kept under his chair in case of emergencies – payments and trades gone awry, the usual – and gestured to Hawkins. The big lump shook off his daydreams and brought out his shotgun.
They were under attack. For the first time in history, the Pantheon was attacking Veldanfjoll. How had they even managed to find it?
Alarms blared, it was the first time Charon had heard them, and the news stopped. Weapons were drawn. Charon knew the only difference between an idiot ready to die for a cause and an idiot ready to kill for a cause was opportunity, so he pressed the switch that transported his goods to a secure location in another universe and made sure his gun was loaded.
The stone-faced Hawkins brought his shotgun around at a group that had started to push towards him. They were shouting, Charon couldn’t make it out.
‘Back off!’ he roared and flourished his own gun in their direction.
He could leave, he thought. There was no more profit to be made today. If the Pantheon was attacking, there wouldn’t be a profit to be made for a very long time. But Veldanfjoll was his home and these people were easy marks. He would defend it. Briefly. Until the shooting got really intense. Or maybe just before that.
Hawkins moved towards the crowd. Even in their panic they were smart enough to move aside for the ten-foot-tall stone tower armed with a shotgun. The small forest growing on his back spread out like a pair of wings and made him look much larger.
It was as they were moving through the crowd that he saw it.
Gold light streamed through the chamber. The storm spread itself over the dark void. Lightning cracked like a cosmic whip.
Charon’s skeletal features glowed in the light. The entire trading floor had gone deathly silent. The storm was silent, too, as it spilled out from its centre.
Charon slowly got hold of himself. He managed to give Hawkins a shove and together they moved away from the window.
Fear had a white-hot hold on the crowd, and nothing sells war quite like fear.
Not Pantheon then, he realised grimly. The Optivarr were here. Was that a good thing or a bad thing?
He had started to retreat, Hawkins was beside him and together they threaded through the crowd. He was panicking. Maybe he was wrong, maybe they would kill them all. For once, he was quite happy not finding out if he was right.
A few moments later, the storm was inside the station.
It ripped open the air at the opposite end of the trade floor. Lightning sparked out of the tear and struck the ceiling miles and miles above. Reality blistered around the heat of it.
Oh, god. This is where I die, this is where I die. Right here and helpless.
There was a figure in the centre of the storm and it was wrapped in fire. Charon slowed to a halt and stared at it. The crowd exploded in screams and shouts and panic and spread out around it. He couldn’t tell which one it was. Not that it mattered. The figure emerged and suddenly the chaos stopped.