Ulryk dismounted from his black mare with a soft grunt and gently rubbed her long face. She particularly liked attention to her nose, and he made sure to reward her with some fuss from time to time. He needed to feed her very soon – it had been a long journey.
The guards at the third gate of Villjamur stepped out from their station, a baroque little structure constructed from dark granite, and stood gawking at the two of them. All three military men wore the same crimson uniforms, with subtle grey stitching, tight armour and heavy swords. The mud outside the doorway to their station was not as trampled as outside the first gate, which indicated that visitors did not usually get this far.
In the biting cold, with flecks of snow spiralling around them, Ulryk showed the guards his papers, as he had done at each of the first two gates, but more importantly he displayed the medallion that hung around his neck. He was wearing several layers of simple brown clothing and had to root some way through it before it could be produced.
It was a gold eight-pointed star, a triangle set inside, and within that an eye.
The three guards gathered around to scrutinize it, though their faces registered their ignorance of such items. Ulryk despaired. He had hoped that such a senior Jorsalir symbol would at least be noted in this great city, as they were in other parts of the Empire.
‘I recognize the eye,’ one of the guards said, ‘and know what that means, but what do the other parts represent?’
‘Such symbols,’ Ulryk declared, ‘are everywhere, and in anything, if you wish to see more meaning. But I would not worry about comprehending such matters – my order forbids such discussions anyway – but suffice to say it’s worn only by the most senior members of the Jorsalir community.’
The senior guard leant back, a stern-looking man with a face full of frown-lines and weather-beaten skin. ‘Well, this Jorsalir trinket of yours would’ve been enough to get you in, and those papers of yours suggest you got some important stuff to be doing.’
‘That is most perceptive of you,’ Ulryk offered, doubting the men would have been able to discern the ornate script. ‘I do indeed.’
‘Political goings on, eh?’
Ulryk shook his head. ‘A mission for Bohr’s eyes only, I hope you understand.’ He smiled.
‘Aye, fair enough. On yer way. Sele of Urtica.’ The guard gave a curt nod and one of the others ran behind their station post to activate the gate. A moment later, mechanisms were being cranked, and a massive cast-iron door groaned open.
‘Sele of . . . Urtica.’ Of course. The new Emperor.
It’s been a successful start, Investigator Fulcrom thought, back in his office in the Inquisition headquarters. Before he started this morning, he’d received a full briefing from the Knights, and was most impressed at how well they were working. Vuldon’s knowledge of urban matters seemed invaluable, and they had already captured one Cavesider who had been associated with Shalev, albeit distantly. But it was enough for him to include it in his reports to the Emperor, and that was what mattered.
Fulcrom stoked the fire and sat back in his chair, watching the flames rip into the wood. He felt the pressure from the Emperor, but knew he could rise to such a challenge. It certainly made a difference from his day-to-day routines, and overseeing the vague assignments under the banner ‘Special Investigations’ was growing on him. He liked the challenge of the new, something with which he could really make his mark on the city, make a difference.
A knock on the door disturbed his thoughts.
‘Come in,’ he called.
‘Investigator Fulcrom?’ It was one of the male administrative staff. ‘Do you have a moment to talk to a visitor? I’ve been told this is one for your, uh, department.’
‘Yes, of course. Show them in.’
The figure headed back outside and there was a shuffling of feet in the doorway.
His visitor entered the room and Fulcrom raised an eyebrow. The man was no taller than five feet, garbed in the brown robes of a Jorsalir priest, with close-cropped grey hair and a trim beard. The lines in his broad face were deep, suggesting he’d probably seen much of the world, and not all of it good. The man placed his numerous hessian bags to one side. There was a pungent, earthy aroma about him, indicating many days spent on the road.
‘Sele of Urtica.’ The figure handed Fulcrom the documentation which he would have used to enter the city. Fulcrom took a look over it, and noted all the iconography and decoration of the Jorsalir church, and though he knew forged documents existed to get into Villjamur, these high-level authentication papers seemed official enough. Fulcrom was instantly intrigued.
‘Sele of Urtica, friend. Please, take a seat.’ Fulcrom handed the papers back and indicated the chair. Hastily, he lit two blue paper lanterns and placed them at opposite ends of his dark wooden desk.
The traveller seated himself with a gentle sigh, and placed his hands on the tabletop. ‘It is indeed reassuring to see one so efficient in his day-to-day business,’ he began, looking around at the inordinately neat office. ‘It brings to mind my own quarters.’ His rasping voice carried a thick accent, one which accentuated each word – particularly the ends – with clarity.
Fulcrom never really noticed the neatly stacked piles of paper, the symmetrically organized writing implements and notebooks. ‘I just can’t seem to work any other way. So, stranger – how can I help?’
‘My name is Ulryk.’
‘I’m Investigator Fulcrom. You’re no longer at your monastery I see?’
‘How did you . . . ?’ The priest paused. ‘The seals on the documents. Of course.’
Fulcrom acknowledged the comment. ‘I’m intrigued – how did you end up in Villjamur?’
‘I was a chief librarian of a Jorsalir monastery based further along the Archipelago, and I have spent many months making my way through the snow to here.’
‘It looks like you have spent a lot of time writing, judging by the black ink staining your nails,’ Fulcrom observed. ‘Your fingers, too, seem to show signs of being a scribe.’ He sat opposite and waited for the man to speak.
The priest gave a beatific smile. ‘I see why you are an investigator. Yes, I have spent . . . decades hunched with a stylus.’
‘What did you write about?’
‘I translate books,’ Ulryk replied. ‘Religious texts of major significance. Very few people can read the languages with which I am familiar. I sought to make the – ’ he paused briefly ‘ – sacred teachings of the Jorsalir church better known.’
‘And is that why you have come to Villjamur, to further your translation work?’
Another smile, this one more distant. ‘You could say such things. Tell me, investigator. How well do you know your city?’
‘I’ve seen much of it, if that’s what you mean. I know most districts, most streets.’ Fulcrom chuckled. ‘Why, do you require a guide?’
‘I very much doubt a guide could show me where I need to go, precisely. No, I need an inquisitive mind most of all, and someone to permit me access to some of the labyrinthine depths of this city.’
‘I’m familiar, to some extent, with the ancient passageways.’
‘This city is older than you think, investigator.’
‘I’m not sure I follow you entirely. Why do you need to go under the city?’
‘What if I were to tell you that all you know of the history of this world was a lie?’
‘I’d say you were mad.’
Ulryk laughed a surprisingly hearty laugh, all the time shaking his head. He rubbed his eyes – here was a tired man indeed, Fulcrom thought.
‘Many say that I am, investigator,’ Ulryk muttered. ‘May I check with you, how the laws are between the church and the Inquisition? Is the Villjamur Inquisition bound to the church? It does not happen in other cities but I must be certain.’
‘There are no connections, so I’m afraid backhand deals or special favours are out of the question, if that’s what you mean,’ Fulcrom replied, which seemed to satisfy the priest. ‘Look, I can’t really help you without knowing a little more information.’
‘I would not ask for such deals, but I am a man in need of help, investigator, and I have few other places to go. I need your assistance in granting me access to certain quarters of city, and I can see that from my experiences getting into the city, these are times of high security.’
‘You could say that,’ Fulcrom replied. A man who comes to the Inquisition for help often feels powerless, though rarely a criminal. What is he after exactly?
Ulryk’s gentle gaze betrayed nothing. ‘I have travelled from Blortath, one of the non-Empire islands.’
‘It surprises me that the Jorsalir church are represented outside the Empire.’
‘They like to keep it quiet in case Imperial rulers think they are up to mischief. The largest Jorsalir monastery of them all, Regin Abbey, is unknown to few save ecclesiastics. It contains the largest library of texts in the Boreal Archipelago, and my work was maintaining these works. We have millions of books, investigator.’ Ulryk reclined into his chair. ‘Volumes of leather made from the hides of animals long extinct from our lands, and languages long forgotten. They were written by the great civilizations of Azimuth and M'athema, and before then, in the legendary Rumel Wars.’
‘Books exist for that long?’
‘If they are well looked after. Admittedly, some are translations of earlier sources, and thus not as reliable. Some are too precious to even open, which makes one wonder if it can even be called a text any longer, more an artefact.’
‘So this is what you do then, as librarian?’ Fulcrom enquired. ‘You translate books and look after their storage. Hardly seems the cause for such a journey, though I must admit it sounds a rather pleasant existence.’
‘For years it used to be so – that is, until I learned that much we know about the world is inaccurate.’
‘A bold claim.’ Fulcrom was endeared by the priest. There was something about his manner that intrigued him, a deep sense of calm, of peace, even though the lanterns exaggerated the angles of his face, making him look older.
Ulryk leaned forward across the desk with a sudden urgency. He paused to gaze around, then whispered, ‘My discoveries have caused a schism within the church. They will come for me.’
Fulcrom wondered just how much trouble a librarian could get into.
They took tea and talked. Fulcrom lit a yellow lantern. Given that he had no business with the Knights for another few hours yet, he allowed Ulryk to continue his story.
‘Why bother telling me all these things?’ Fulcrom asked.
After a moment’s reflection, Ulryk said, ‘Because I am an honest man.’
‘You’d be surprised how many criminals have told me just the same.’
A warm smile from the priest. ‘They might still be honest men, investigator, even if they caused harm. But I feel the need to unburden myself and share this knowledge – it is no good just in my head and you are the first secular official I have spoken to for . . . years.’ Ulryk chuckled. ‘My, it has been a long time. It feels a relief to finally tell these things to someone who would not punish me for the act.’
‘You mentioned a schism in the church,’ Fulcrom said. ‘What’s the split over?’
‘The gods,’ Ulryk sighed, suddenly on edge. He slid the chair back and shuffled slowly to the tiny window alongside the bookshelves. There he gazed out across the street, his face creased with anxiety. ‘Are we . . . quite safe, here?’
‘This is the Inquisition,’ Fulcrom declared. ‘As a free man, you’re in no safer place.’
‘Good,’ Ulryk continued. ‘Yes, the split is over gods, but investigator, what do you know of the gods of this world?’
‘I’m not much of a religious man, I’m afraid,’ Fulcrom offered apologetically.
Ulryk waved for him to go on. ‘Tell me their tales, as you have heard it. Please, indulge me this once.’
‘Well, uh, all I know is that the creator gods, Bohr and Astrid, were part of the legendary Dawnir race in the heavens that came to this plane of existence. The two moons of this world were named after them. They had great powers and could channel the world’s energies. Then one of the races they created – the Pithicus? – formed a rival clan, and the War of Gods followed. That was, uh, a few hundred thousand years ago?’ Fulcrom laughed. ‘It sounds ridiculous, but it’s all I know I’m afraid – I neglect to go to church these days. I guess I have too much work to do.’
‘No, you did well,’ Ulryk enthused, approaching, and Fulcrom only then noticed that his eyes were an intense shade of green. ‘That’s an accurate description of our history as told in every Jorsalir church throughout the Empire. And this is where the schism begins, right at the very start of things. What I discovered through my translation work was a different version of this history. Over the last few years I have checked and rechecked my sources, but a certain batch of ancient tomes seem to contradict this history, with vivid accounts of a very different beginning – some even with sketches, diagrams and art.’
‘I can see why that could cause an upset,’ Fulcrom agreed.
Ulryk came to sit again at the desk and gave Fulcrom a look of despair.
Fulcrom would often be confronted with the insane, those seeking attention, those on the fringe of society, those in need of a care he couldn’t give them – it was all part of working in the Inquisition. But there was something about the raw honesty of Ulryk that suggested this was totally genuine.
‘Could the documents have been forgeries?’ Fulcrom asked.
‘Unlikely. In fact, I have evidence that some of the official histories were forged. Subtleties in the vellum, the inks used, the languages, matched ductus and the likes . . .’
‘What were these new histories?’ Fulcrom asked. ‘What was it about the gods specifically that has caused a so-called schism?’
Ulryk’s temper – if it could be called that – flared. ‘I will first address the matter that this schism is very real, investigator. Thousands of lives have been lost already, and the communities built around the church were decimated once I leaked this information. I am a fugitive of the church. A year ago men and women were butchered simply for protecting me and allowing my passage to the Empire – where the church has greater connections, I might add. I have seen children hung from trees and the blame placed upon me – all because of the information I possess.’
‘I don’t think this is the whole story,’ Fulcrom said. ‘The church would have no reason to burn villages in your name, for what could be considered the simple blasphemy of a madman.’
A silence, then Ulryk muttered, ‘It was not all, admittedly. For several years up until that point, I had translated sacred Jorsalir texts into local languages, and had given them away for the people to practise their spiritual paths without the power of the church interfering. I felt that it was unfair to monopolize the words of Bohr and Astrid. Then, nearly two years into testing the fake histories which I had discovered, I began to cease helping the communities around the abbey. How could I believe in the lies I was spreading? One member of my former community came to the doors of our main church and revealed my actions. I was betrayed at a most critical time. I went on the road, and I hid for several months, refining my theories and processes, whilst schooling others in these new theories. There were many friends in the towns and villages who sheltered me, up until the church’s military wing went into action. I was the subject of a witch-hunt and almost everyone who has known me is dead.’
‘And you faked your papers to get into the city, didn’t you?’ Fulcrom suddenly realized. ‘You used your skills with script to trick the city guards – and myself. There’s no way you would have been let in otherwise. The church would have seen to it.’
Ulryk closed his eyes.
For some reason, that act of forgery seemed to confirm Ulryk’s desperation – here was a man of intelligence, and Fulcrom could trust in the fact that at least Ulryk believed himself.
‘These histories . . .’ Fulcrom asked. ‘How do they differ?’
Ulryk’s gaze was intense. ‘According to the new histories I discovered, the Dawnir were created by the hands of one man – as a matter of fact, he created many creatures. His name was Frater Mercury, and he was skilled with technologies that could create, from nothing, elaborate and detailed mythological beings, as well as many creations of his own muse. He was a powerful man – too powerful, in fact, for his time. As far as I can gather, a collection of religions united under the Jorsalir banner raising a rebellion against the use of such technology, which was perceived as highly dangerous. This eventually spilled over into combat – the land was ripped apart in a great war – and Frater Mercury was forced to leave this plane of existence. Using his aptitude with technology, he stepped into another dimension, taking his creatures with him. And, what was left of history was rewritten by the Jorsalir collective church – featuring your charming recollections of Bohr and Astrid. These stories and widespread violence suppressed Frater Mercury’s technology, though of course the cultists have salvaged much. The secrets of that society still exist – the church has kept vaults of ancient texts hidden, many of which are manuals left by Frater Mercury – few people can decipher them today, perhaps only myself. I believe a key text lies somewhere in this city. It is here, investigator, though so old it might be in no fit condition to decipher – though try, I must. And I can offer proof of these texts being somewhat . . . magical, I suppose. Come with me – I need to show you something. Will you indulge me further, investigator?’
Ulryk stood, preparing to leave the office.
I have been doing so for the past hour . . . Fulcrom reached for his over-cloak. ‘I think I need some air to blow some sense into me.’
Under a violet sky streaked with grey clouds, Fulcrom marched across the streets of Villjamur with Ulryk. Together they were doing their best to avoid the many horse-drawn carriages, carts and clusters of civilians who were sifting through the city. A dark-haired woman in glorious gold and royal blue clothing was handing out copies of People’s Observer to passers-by keen to read the latest sanitized news from Balmacara. Two garudas sailed overhead on patrol, bound on a gentle landing arc towards a nearby wall, the downdraught ruffling Fulcrom’s white hair, which he immediately smoothed back down.
Fulcrom noticed how Ulryk was constantly gazing about himself with the wonder of a child, and twice Fulcrom had to guide him out of the path of others. One man drew a sword on the priest when they collided, but Fulcrom flashed the Inquisition medallion, and the assailant backed away.
They went past excited children, who were grouped around one of the city’s noticeboards, and instead of some official declaration, a parchment had been nailed there by the MythMaker.
Ulryk asked Fulcrom what the drawings concerned.
‘It’s a story,’ sighed a red-haired kid in scruffy breeches who’d overhead him. His tone seemed incredulous that the priest did not already know who or what the MythMaker was.
Fulcrom scanned the parchment, the edges of which rippled in the breeze. On the paper were a few rectangular frames and, within them, characters had been drawn in various poses. There were two figures in this series, each wearing cloaks, and in the first box they were standing on the top of a tower. Lines of text had been scrawled underneath to indicate their speech. Fulcrom had to admit the artwork, though crude, was impressive.
‘Whose story is it?’
‘The MythMaker,’ three of the kids said at once insistently.
‘And what is the story about?’ Ulryk asked the redhead, who was on tiptoes, glancing between the eager heads.
‘Saving the city,’ the kid snapped despairingly. ‘Legends, and that kind of shit. You know, like creatures from the past and all that. The hero is saving Villjamur from the evil monsters out in the country.’
Ulryk beamed at Fulcrom, his eyes creasing in delight. ‘Such joy in these innocent young minds.’
‘Indeed,’ Fulcrom said, and contemplated hauling down the artwork because it blocked an official noticeboard. But he noticed an older child explaining the story to a younger one who clearly could not read, so decided it was perhaps doing no harm.
Eventually, Fulcrom and Ulryk ended up standing by the rear of a bakery. Warmth from an oven was melting the previous night’s snow from the roof, and water dripped down in a gentle trickle, into a gutter, then down a drain.
Fulcrom stood with his hands in his pockets as Ulryk withdrew a heavy book from his satchel. It was more than a little battered, crafted from brown leather, and the pages inside seemed blighted by mould and damp.
‘Watch the water,’ Ulryk cautioned, ‘and place your fingers in your ears.’
Fulcrom did as he was told, chuckling to himself at the absurdity of his situation. Well, at least with Special Investigations, or ‘weird shit’ as the other investigators whisper, I’m no longer staring at corpses.
Ulryk began to intone from the book, as if preaching. His mouth became contorted, shaping word forms that were clearly not of Jamur origin. Fulcrom regarded the dripping stream of water, and waited patiently.
Slowly – remarkably – the water began to alter its course . . . yes, it reversed itself, sloshing up from the drain and back up into the gutter, then spouting up onto the roof.
Ulryk guided Fulcrom’s hands towards the water. ‘Go on,’ he encouraged, ‘it’s quite all right to touch it.’
The water struck his hand, which interrupted the upward flow, and he could feel the force of it against his palm. Fulcrom was staggered, withdrawing his hand to dry it, whilst watching the flow continue once again. ‘How did you do this?’ he asked.
Ulryk held up the book. ‘It is the power of words, investigator. I had to show you something incredible, so that you might have faith in me. Do you believe some of what I say now?’
‘What is that?’ Fulcrom indicated the book.
‘This is merely one of many powerful texts that I have recovered – perhaps the most powerful of all.’
Fulcrom simply watched the water flowing in reverse, against the forces of nature, in thick upward slops. He had considered the story in great depth, and now added this new variable into his thoughts. If he’s a man of magic, he could have harmed me. His story seems strange, but he’s not asking for much . . . ‘You could have a relic up your sleeve.’
‘Do you see any? You may search me if you wish.’ He placed the book in his satchel and held his arms open. ‘Though later, when I have found my way around the city, I can show you more magic. Consider this a deposit of sorts.’
‘A search won’t be necessary. OK, I can help you out where I can, though I’m not sure what I can do. If you need special passes or protection, I can see to that. I’m afraid I’m a little stretched for time these days.’
‘I simply need one man of influence to help me on my way about the city!’ The priest suddenly leapt up and down, a vision of joy upon his face, and Fulcrom wondered what he was getting himself into.