Jacob ran along the stone corridor, his feet unintentionally hitting the ground in time to the pounding of the machine. His rhythm broke as he ricocheted around a corner, bouncing off the wall in his panicked flight. A glance as he turned showed the black-cloaked figures still behind him, their shapes distended and demonic in the fluttering torchlight. Then he was running again.
Hours earlier he had been unexpectedly and unceremoniously released by the Ironguard. He had found himself looking over the immense city of Ironhaven. It was crammed with buildings and crawling with people. There was an intensity and vibrancy of life that seemed to be trying its hardest to contradict, or deny, the dusty harshness of existence beyond the walls.
He had been bewildered, by his interrogation, by his sudden freedom and by the heaving claustrophobic vista before him. He had no idea what had become of his companions. Then he saw, rising from this chaos, the calm might of a cathedral. It had stood proud and clear, reaching to Heaven, offering him familiarity and sanctuary. He had steeled himself and pressed though the city, keeping the spire in view until he reached its hard, cool stone.
The vast interior still echoed with a little of the city’s clamour, but it was muted. He found himself a pew in a quiet vestry and sat down to think. Occasionally a priest would walk through to the adjoining room, where Jacob heard brief, murmured voices, and then nothing. He saw no one come back out.
His curiosity had got the better of him. He pulled his hood up, looking once more like the priest he was no longer sure he deserved to be, and walked through the doorway.
Two Ironguard sat on either side. They looked brutish, and bored.
One on the right spoke, “Your wrist, brother.”
Jacob was suddenly glad he hadn’t re-bound his wrists after his imprisonment. The guard pushed Jacob’s sleeve up to reveal the overlapping circles of his tattoo; he spat on his finger and rubbed the ink, grunted, then waved Jacob on.
At the other end of the room was an arched corridor. He came to a door, wondered whether this was such a bright idea. Then he tried the handle and discovered it was locked.
He tried again. What if he couldn’t go back, if the guards would only let him pass one way?
Then he remembered the key. Oh he had thought himself so clever. He held his breath as he tried it in the tiny keyhole and, sure enough, he felt the mechanism catch, the bolt slide back. He had cautiously opened the door onto a flight of stone steps leading downwards and descended, locking the door behind him.
He descended into darkness. And deep beneath the cathedral, beneath the city, he had seen the machine. He had looked down into a pit and witnessed the gaping mouths of fire and the soot-stained wretches that fed them. He had felt himself sweat with the cloying heat, felt his breath come short in the barren air.
Mighty pistons pounded a rhythm like a thunderous pulse and as he had stared in horror and incomprehension at the black heart of Ironhaven someone had seen him. A black-robed figure had called to him and begun to mount the steps that wound round the sides of the pit to the level on which he stood.
Fear had grasped Jacob then, so he had run, blindly, through these deep corridors.
And now he came to a flight of steps. He ran up them, his fatigued breathing coming in heavy gasps. At the top of the steps he saw a door, bright light lancing in beneath the top and bottom. He prayed for old hinges or a rusted bolt. Acid burned in his muscles as he powered upwards and slammed into the wood of the door.
He burst into daylight in splinters of wood and stone. There were yells and curses around him as he stumbled into a crowded street. People tried to spread away from him but the drive of the crowd pressed them inwards. He thrust forwards, using his strength and his elbows to plough through the heaving mass.
The cries of surprise and anger at his exit soon merged with the hollers of the vendors and the rowdiness of a busy street full of people with places to be. All those people made him very nervous, but it was nothing compared to his fear of what was after him so he let the pull of the crowd drag him away until he washed up against a narrow alley of empty containers, back doors and overflowing bins.
He slumped down where he couldn’t be seen from either end of the alley and heaved in ragged mouthfuls of air. He held his head in his hands as his whole body shook with exertion and adrenaline. He began to cry.