Agamemnon Frost and the Crown of Towers (9 page)

BOOK: Agamemnon Frost and the Crown of Towers
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Mason twisted the spoked tap on the ceramic surround of the bath. Water gushed in and he climbed over the edge. Hot, cold, it made little difference to his skin at that moment. Now he’d wash Frost from him, his scent, his touch, disappearing down the gurgling plughole.

He ran the hard cake of amber soap over his skin, the familiar scent of thyme rising in the damp air. It did little to ease the ache in his gut. He washed quickly and dried his too-clean skin.

Frost had admitted nothing, nothing more than an obvious desire. Mason had caught the shadow of hesitation more than once, and his instincts, so sharp, had screamed it was all to do with his promise to Theodora.

Wishing he could shiver in the cold room, he lathered his shaving brush, sweeping it over his face with practiced strokes. A moment later, he stretched the skin on his jaw and scraped the razor over the bristles. The sound of Frost stirring caused the blade to nick him, the blood that beaded a thin line of red appearing all too briefly. The cut healed as he watched, his skin scar-free, as if the slice or the pain had never happened.

Would Frost want him to see to him, to shave and rub vanilla and sandalwood into his skin. To dress him. Mason’s chest ached. It would’ve been so much easier if love had no place in his life, in his heart—

He stopped, the razor poised above his skin. The mirror reflected his frown. Something was...wrong. The air stirred. It pricked his skin, every bare inch.

Mason swore, splashed water onto his face and left the dark bathroom.

“Mason...” Frost caught his fingers in his hair and unease burned from him. “About—”

“It’s time.” Mason was almost glad the sour wrongness seared the back of his throat. Avoiding Frost saying how much he regretted their time together was not something he wanted or needed to hear. He crossed the room to grab his clothes. “Get dressed.”

Frost frowned at him. “What...?”

“It’s time.” Mason buttoned his fly. “The Crown of Towers is rising.”

10. Stepping out into the City


Achilles.
Martian shields have encased a number of buildings.
” Nestor paused. “
Including this one.

Frost snatched up the
ektaxis
from the sideboard, his other hand fastening the buttons of his shirt. “What?”


And some sort of...ray has fixed around every ’ship in the sky.

Mason moved to the window, twitching back the long velvet curtain. Behind the netting and glass, the familiar droplets of oil hung in the shimmering air. It rippled against his skin, almost softening the sour stab of his other feeling, the insane one that cut through him with its wrongness. The running lights of airships laced the sky, a pale cloud enveloping each one. Frost had been right. Balloons were no match for Martians.

“Just as he said.” Mason fixed his shirt collar. “They’re containing the city.”

“But not us.” Frost focused on the device in his hand, the ghostly image of their commander clear in the darkness of the hotel room. “The Crown of Towers is rising. We’ll find it and destroy it.”

Nestor was silent, his hand brushing over his thick moustache. There was a great deal he wasn’t saying. Mason could almost feel the press of it. The fact that they were now alone, that with the shields in place, no call for help, however desperate, would be answered. “
Meet me in the foyer.

“Understood.” His thumb hovered over the controls. “Achilles, out.” Frost looked to him. “Where do we go?”

Mason picked up his coat, the memory of how Frost had slipped it over his shoulders burning under his fingertips. The emergency had taken away the awkward conversation Frost had obviously wanted. The relief was bitter in Mason’s belly. “East from here.” He pointed to the window. “What I feel, it’s stronger that way.”

“Mason...”

He shrugged on his coat and fastened the buttons. He didn’t want to face his end with Frost’s regret. He packed down his emotions, fighting to pull on the internal armour that had lasted him so long in the British army. “Last night was last night. Now? We have our orders.”

“I...” Frost was lost for words. It was there in his open mouth and the slight crease between his eyes. He blinked and something faded in him. The hard light of a soldier returned. He nodded. “What is the Crown of Towers?”

“I don’t know. Something...vast.” His fingers itched to straighten the line of Frost’s coat, to readjust the sapphire pin pressed into the fold of his silk tie. He stopped himself. “It’s as if Pandarus fired electricity through flesh. It feels alive.”

“Similar to the hollow ships?”

“Yes. No.” Mason scratched at his damp hair. “I need to get outside.” He unlocked the door and left the room, not waiting to see if Frost followed. A single electric ceiling lamp lit the long corridor. Station X had commandeered the whole building, using it as their headquarters, but few were in the large hotel and the floor was silent.

He took to the wide stairs, his boots quiet on the carpet. He was running away. He knew it. But he needed the moment, the time to tighten a shield around his feelings for Frost, as the Martians had enclosed every ’ship. He couldn’t face the enemy with his thoughts broken and raw from Frost’s rejection.

“Sir.” A young technician stepped out from the shadows of the doors leading to the foyer. He held two steaming tin mugs. “As hot as we could make it.”

Mason nodded, the act doing more to push his mind back to where it needed to be: focused on ending Pandarus once and for all. “Thank you.”

He took the mug, the heat of the metal barely felt against his fingers. His altered skin was a strange thing. Immune to some things and a riot of sensitivity for others. Twitching a smile, he knocked back the boiling water, the heat and swell of it almost sweet before it hit his stomach. The radiating warmth eased the tension in his flesh.

Mason let out a low sigh, and the young man’s eyes widened. Colour burned in his cheeks. “Strange, I know,” he murmured.

“I have Achilles’ here too.”

“He’s—”

“Thank you.” Frost reached around Mason and took the mug. It was emptied in a moment. “Time is of the essence. We have to leave.”

Frost strode through the open doors to the columned and dark-panelled foyer, his walking stick clicking against the tiles. He came to a sudden stop as Nestor moved to put his hand on his arm. The grip was firm. And he made Frost wait until Mason caught up to them.

In the white shine of the electric ceiling lamp, Nestor looked old and worn. His usually smart Norfolk jacket was rumpled, and Mason wondered how much sleep the older man had allowed himself. From the red lines streaking the whites of his eyes, not much.

“The shield has been in place for just under half an hour.” Nestor frowned and pushed his hand over his untidy white hair. He crooked his finger to a soldier who hurried over with shoulder holsters and
pelekys
energy weapons. He waited as Mason and Frost armed themselves. “We have lines of communication to our ’ships, to the other buildings that hold personnel. Pandarus doesn’t care what we say. We can’t act.”

Mason straightened. “Our problem is east.”

“Then get to it. End this.”

Nestor stepped back and saluted. The silence of the foyer pressed against Mason and he turned to see every technician, every officer present them with sharp salutes. Mason’s chest tightened and it was hard to breathe. Every single man knew that no matter the outcome, whether they defeated the Martians or not, he and Frost weren’t coming out alive.

He returned the salute. And hated the bitter cramp in his gut.

“Ready?” Frost’s question was quiet but firm.

Mason nodded. He tugged at the hem of his coat, mostly to stop the persistent urge to fix the fold in Frost’s tie. “Ready.”

A technician pulled open the wide inner door, and cold air swept up from the front doors. The barrier pulsed across the wood, glass and stone columns, the remains of an arm keeping the doors ajar. It was dissolving, cloth and skin blackening and flakes floating away as if the arm had been dropped into a vat of acid. From the braid still clinging to the sleeve, it was the remains of one of the doormen.

Frost eased the door open and stepped through, Mason following. The shield flowed over him, a hot caress around his jaw and running over the backs of his hands. A second later, he crossed into the pillared portico.

The cold air of the early morning slapped away the warmth of the shield, and Mason hissed in a breath. He narrowed his gaze into the darkness of Ranleigh Street, and the tug of rot filled his chest. “That way.”

“Mason...”

“We should run.” He broke away and ran along the empty pavement. The silence of the city was strange, eerie. Only the distant drone of the ’ships pinned in the sky made any sound.

Fog wreathed around him, swirling and churning as he pounded over the flagstones. His breathing was steady, his heart sure in its mechanical rhythm, and his gaze altered to see in the darkness. Mason let himself fall into their patterns for a few short minutes. He would have to face Frost before they found Pandarus. He
knew
that. He simply needed more time.

Frost caught his arm and skidded him to a halt outside the Crown pub. His mouth had thinned. “Enough.” He shoved, pushing Mason against the black brick of the pub wall. “Is he awake, is that it?”

Frost tapped his temple...and Mason flinched. He cursed against that reaction. He was doing it again. Blaming Frost for his own pain. They didn’t have time for his melodrama. He straightened the line of his coat. “You keep him silent.”

Something softened in Frost’s eyes—the glimpse of a moment—before he nodded. “Good. Then where now?”

Mason looked across Lime Street. To the right the station and the North Western Hotel pulsed with shielding. To the left, all of St. George’s Plateau hummed, static heavy, with the lights of the ’ships high above it obscured by the curls of browned fog thickening the air.

The high stone columns of the St. George’s Hall pricked at his senses. Built to mirror a vast Roman temple, it was a place for public meetings and concerts with Courts of Assize in either wing. Mason’s gaze moved over it to the statues decorating the plateau and to the distant column with Wellington atop it. Familiar sights he had met with for years, as the Picton Library stood behind the Hall...and yet, the building drew his instincts back to it. In the altered darkness, oily droplets suspended over it. His bones ached at the Hall’s absolute wrongness.

“St. George’s Hall. Pandarus is under it.”

Frost frowned. “There are remand cells and air ventilation pipes and mechanisms beneath the courts. If he’s there...”

“Under that. Deep underground.” Mason snorted. “Here beneath our feet. All this time.”

“But he’s only just activated...whatever it is.” Frost led the way across the empty street, his boots rapping against the worn cobbles. “Pandarus has wormed his way through and under most of the city. His stain is everywhere. Differentiating...” He stopped at the bottom of the steps, the Hall rising above them. “That’s difficult.” He tapped at his lip. “This way.”

Mason followed Frost even as his instincts screamed at him, the feeling of dread heavier than he had ever felt it. He pushed down the little spikes of fear. “You know this is a trap.”

Frost frowned. “I do.”

“And we’re going in anyway?”

Frost brushed the collar of Mason’s coat, flicking away a fleck of dust. “Anything and everything, Mason. We stop then.”

And die in the attempt.
But that went unsaid.

11. The End of the World, Part One

The shield shimmered, little droplets of oil caught in the cold air. Frost’s breath curled through it as he stared up at the great bronze doors cut into the base of St. George’s Hall. He pulled his weapon from its holster, the colour-filled energy within it spiking the darkness. “We can get to the cells through here.”

Weapon’s fire sparked against the metal, and Frost pushed one of the solid doors inwards. The odour of wet bricks and earth caused Mason to wince, but beyond the thick smell, there was nothing, no sounds in the unused tunnel running the length of the Hall.

“I don’t remember Nestor saying the remand prisoners had been moved.” The silence pressed against Mason, igniting his instincts. They were walking into an ambush. “But he must have.”

“Your weapon.” Frost’s voice was low and he led the way across a rotted plank to another, open set of metal doors. Beyond them in the thick, dry darkness were more vaulted tunnels of St. George’s Hall’s lower levels. Frost moved quickly and silently, sure in his purpose.

“You come to the cells often?”

Mason caught the edge of his smile. “A man must have his hobbies...”

They stopped at stone steps that led up to a passage and dark silence. It scratched against Mason’s skin. A trap and something more lay ahead of them. He took to the worn steps, his boots making no sound, and up to the long corridor that held the remand cells.

Human stink cut the air. Recent and warm. Mason stopped at one of the cells. He pulled at the heavy lock, but the door remained shut tight.

Frost put his gun to the lock and a crack of energy broke it. Inside was only empty darkness. But Mason could almost sense the outlines of the female prisoners who’d been locked in overnight, the shapes of them against the bricks, wrapped in the rags of blankets on the stone floor.

Frost bent to pick up a tin plate. The shine of grease still coated it. “Again, taken in a moment.” He put the plate on the shelf besides the door. “But taken where?”

The wide cell felt...wrong, and the bile of it rose to Mason’s mouth. “Here.” Mason pressed his palm to the wall of the cell.

The chilled air, cut with the stink of the missing prisoners, brushed against the dirt-covered bricks and something else. “
Koile
.” It pulsed under his touch, the whispers of it chasing across his thoughts with the echo of the flesh it used to be. “The same as in the cellar. That hint of difference, flesh, but strengthened. Tainted.”

“So many ways to corrupt our blood and bones,” Frost murmured. He lifted his weapon. Energy hummed, and the myriad colours flashed through its clear casing. “Stand back.”

“Wait!” Mason frowned at the wall of dead flesh, tracing out the line of false mortar. “It’s not hollow like the
koile
that pulled in the ships.” Mason’s thoughts turned over as he tried to put into words the feelings that filled him. He
knew
the difference. He simply couldn’t explain it. “It does...more.”

Frost holstered his weapon and ran his fingers over the wall. “More...” A dark smile touched his lips and his hand balled into a fist. He punched the wall. But instead of smacking his knuckles against false brick, his hand sank into it up to his wrist. “It has the ability to move you.”

He took Mason’s hand, and with a soft “Can’t lose you now,” sank into the wall.

Mason’s heart drummed, fighting the sudden hot panic racing along his nerves. Frost knew what he was doing. He hoped.

The wall pressed against his face, and he sucked in a tight breath out of habit, before it moulded to his skin, wet and gluing to his body. A horrified moment later his face broke free of the wall. He sucked in a quick lungful of air. And stilled.

Silent darkness surrounded them. He eased himself free of the
koile
, the slurp and gloop of it itching under his skin. He rubbed a hand over his sleeve but found it dry, nothing staining his clothes. Still, he shivered against the unnaturalness of it.

They were no longer in the cells beneath the Hall and had moved far below its vaulted tunnels. The difference pressed over his skin and mind. They stood in a narrow passage, the scents of earth, sandstone and the salty hint of
koile
burning against Mason’s tongue. Through the transformed flesh surrounding them in the tunnel walls he could almost feel the weight of the earth and stone above them. They were buried deep inside the earth.

Frost eased his weapon from its holster, the light gleaming in the blackness, gilding his hand, chest and face. He nodded to Mason. “Be ready.”

The gun warmed Mason’s hand, the light flickering to reveal the pocked surface of the
koile
running ahead and curving above them.

“We see Pandarus, we shoot.”

“Agreed.” Mason’s fingers flexed around his gun as the tunnel widened and stretched up, the darkness becoming more than walls. In the grey light, chambers studded the stretch of
koile
flesh. Hundreds of them, in every direction.

Frost approached one, the flickering energy from his weapon casting shadows over the clear curve of the chamber. He pressed a palm to it and peered inside. “A human in the process of being hollowed. From the uniform, I’d say it was one of the turnkeys from the cells above us.”

He stood back and frowned up into the shadows. “They’re not encased in
koile
. That’s...” He narrowed his eyes. “That’s some type of metal.”

Mason skimmed his fingers in the space between the chambers. Frost was right. Metal thrummed, a strange mix of ores that he recognised. The alloy was a part of his body too...and from so far away. He closed his eyes. It wasn’t
koile.
Which meant that Pandarus had succeeded in filling the structure he’d created from the wrought flesh of so many people. Creating the Crown of Towers. They were standing in it. And if it was about to rise...

“It’ll take the city apart.” Frost finished his thought.

Mason moved away, turning, staring up into the spikes, the shadows far above him. Chambers filled every space. Hundreds of people, thousands locked in the horrifying process of being hollowed, as he tried to wrap his mind around what this space was. It brought with it the waking nightmare of burnt earth, smoke and the remnants of memory. Hints of how with his Martian-made flesh
he
had been used to hollow out so many people into little more than stone.

There was so much of it, stretching out through tunnels, a vast metal space and somehow he’d seen it before. Flashes of light and churning clouds moved over his memory and his heart clenched. “From the future.” He stared at Frost. “We’ve seen this before. Decades from now.”

“The Crown of Towers is a ship—”

“It is so much more than that.”

Mason’s arm jerked up, his weapon aimed towards the voice coming out of the blackness. Older, English, but with the cynical edge he knew as Pandarus. He fired. Frost’s gun discharged a second later. Energy flashed, the mirror imprint of light burning against his eyes. He pinched the bridge of his nose, fighting to focus.

Laughter echoed around the space, seeming to bounce off every smooth surface and catch itself in the crags.

“You both struck Menelaus’s butler. Each taking an eye. Impressive unity for such defective machines.”

Mason wet his lips, looking to Frost. His fingers eased on the grip of the gun. Even with his changed vision he couldn’t
see
their enemy. Was he telling the truth? Had they shot an automaton rather than Pandarus?

Light grew above them, slow and sure, pushing back the shadows. Mason’s heart thudded, nerves firing. His every instinct screamed to run...but they had to stay and fight. They had no choice.

From a tunnel, shapes moved, familiar bodies and faces moving into view. Theodora and Menelaus, and in a line beside them, dressed in white hooded robes, were other automata and
kardax.

Walking behind Theodora and Menelaus was a wizened older man, his white hair thinned and swept back, but his pale blue eyes were fierce with the hard white light of the
Ilarches.
His creations shielded him.

“Lord Dunstone.” Frost tipped his gun sight. From the angle, it aimed between his fiancée and his brother. Directly at Pandarus. “An unusual choice.”

Lord Dunstone. The missing Bishop of Oxford. Had Theodora been wrong about why he was in the city, or had the
kardax
within her misled them?

The man smiled, his lips thin and his teeth browned with age. “He’s surprisingly firm of limb. I hollowed out his mind years ago. After all, who would suspect an old priest?”

The line of men and women took another step closer and Mason’s shoulders tightened. His aim was sure, but he could risk neither of the people protecting Pandarus. He had vowed that Frost would not lose anyone else he cared for.

“Put down your weapons.”

“Agamemnon.” A look of horror contorted Menelaus’s face. “I...” He lifted his chin, his shoulders straightening. A deeper resolve had strengthened him and his next words were completely sure. “Shoot. They cannot be allowed to succeed. It’s your duty to—” He cracked his jaw and a sneer pulled at his mouth. “Yes, shoot,
Agamemnon.
Kill your brother as you try—and fail—to kill your master.”

Frost’s mouth opened and shut. His hand wavered and Mason didn’t know what to do. Neither could shoot knowing that Frost’s brother was alive, pressed down by the mind of the automaton.

“Agamemnon?” Theodora’s uncertain voice cut through Mason. “What is this place?”

Her eyes widened and her gaze darted between them. Mason prayed it was the strange machinery around them and not the lingering energies she could no doubt see swirling between Frost and himself. He didn’t want to give her that pain, that betrayal.

“Theodora...” Frost groaned her name and Mason fought back the bitter bite of jealousy.

As one they moved closer and both men took a step back. Mason looked to Frost, but his jaw was set and his eyes narrowed. He offered no guidance. Shit. It couldn’t end like this, them backed up against a wall, holding guns...and yet having none of the power.

This was the Martian’s ship. Pandarus could take them with weapons Mason couldn’t begin to imagine. Why was he playing with them like this? The hard shine to his eyes, the curl to the old man’s withered lip, told Mason everything. Because he could. Because Pandarus liked the twisted game.

Something brushed his arm, quick and fleeting. He glanced behind him to find chambers vanished and blank-eyed
koile
searching the air with their hands. He swore under his breath. Pandarus and his creations were before them,
koile
behind.

More grabbed at him...and
only
him.

A look of panic shot across Frost’s face. And Frost
never
panicked. Mason struggled against the grip of hands and arms, the scrape of their wrongness raw against his skin. Frost was there, somewhere in the melee of bodies...but something—no, someone—threw him back.

Theodora. She’d barrelled into Frost and he’d grabbed her out of reflex.

Pandarus’s laughter echoed again. “Do you think I wanted
her?

Koile
swarmed Mason now, holding his legs, arms, his head. He couldn’t move, and fear pushed deep into his gut. He wanted to shout at Frost to get out, but a thick palm blocked his mouth.

Pandarus tilted his head. “No, I analysed the data from the construction of the hollow ships. It made for interesting reading. It appears I created something different in Mason. Something useful. Theodora’s broken brain is of no use to me. But his heightened intuitions?” Pandarus looked up to the points of light and the hollows of spires stretching away into the earth high above them. “My ship needs a brain. And I’m using his.”

BOOK: Agamemnon Frost and the Crown of Towers
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