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TWENTY


Tane and Vuldon, it seemed, could get in anywhere with their newfound identities. On a rare evening to themselves, they decided the best thing to do was go for a drink, get to know each other a little better. Vuldon was fine with that. He knew that it was important to form a good relationship with someone who might, one day, end up saving his life.

They strolled through the sleet to one of the new silver and glass bars that were becoming more common in Villjamur. Cultist-enhanced lights and coloured lanterns made the place look surreal. A weird green glow fell across the shiny cobbles. A couple of young girls ran by laughing with a wax coat raised up above them to shelter from the wet, and they headed inside. Two soldiers stood either side of the doorway, dressed in military colours that Vuldon didn’t recognize: sleek, dark-red uniforms, with a white belt and hefty black boots.

Vuldon stepped up to the two men. ‘Interesting uniforms you got there, gentlemen.’

The one on the left spoke, ‘Colours of the Shelby Corporation Soldiers. Sir.’

‘Private militia?’ Tane queried.

‘Emperor’s allowed private companies to offer military services in the city, sir. What with the current military being overstretched.’

‘Looks as though you’re kitted out well,’ Vuldon said, nodding towards the fine-looking blade at the man’s hip.

‘What kind of business is Shelby in?’ Tane asked.

‘Ores, mainly. Based in Villiren, sir.’

‘He make those swords?’

‘Yes, sir.’

‘Well, doesn’t that work out well for his ore business, soldiers of Shelby?’ Vuldon said. ‘I take it you’re not going to deny us entry?’

‘Absolutely not, sir. Knights are most welcome indeed. Sir.’

Vuldon and Tane glided past the soldiers and into the bar. Vuldon had to crouch a little to fit under the lintel, but eventually found himself in a cavernous room that looked as though it had once been something like a factory, except now it was polished metal and lurid coloured lighting.

‘Now this is more like it!’ Tane enthused.

‘It’s horrible, is what it is,’ Vuldon muttered.

‘Now there is nothing wrong with a little progress in design. You’ll get used to it. And look at these women!’

Vuldon peered about the joint. It was full of youngsters moving in spasms on a central floor, while all along the edge were musicians on tribal drums and weird nasal-sounding instruments. ‘There’s too much noise. I want a drink.’

Vuldon muscled his way to the bar and asked the barman for two rums. He looked back at his own reflection, at the logo on his chest that seemed to glow in the weird lighting. He tossed over a coin, took his drinks and was, almost instantly, surrounded by people.

‘You’re . . . you’re a Knight!’ someone gasped.

‘I’ve heard about you.’

‘I saw you only yesterday helping someone.’

The compliments rolled in; these people were in awe. He smiled awkwardly, thanked them, and pushed back towards Tane, who accepted his drink.

‘You know what, old boy? These powers have their advantages. I heard everything those fellows said to you.’

‘Tell me something I don’t know,’ Vuldon mumbled.

‘How about, I can hear what that group of women are saying about you.’

‘You shouldn’t listen in to conversations like that, cat-man.’

‘Really? The one with red hair thinks you’re a fine-looking specimen. But the thing is, I can listen to what the ladies like, and direct my charm offensive accordingly . . .’

‘That’s . . . creepy,’ Vuldon said.

‘Nonsense, it’s streamlining. Take that lady over there – she’s just broken up with her lover, and hates men. That’s not worth pursuing.’

‘She’s not worth pursuing.’

‘Over there – the brunette in the blue dress – it’s her birthday, and she’s feeling the need for change in her life.’

‘And you could bring that about, yeah?’ Vuldon asked. ‘You could have a meaningful relationship and respect her?’

‘Now steady on, chap. I’m merely suggesting what these powers can offer. I’m talking about the lady there, the blonde in the black dress.’

‘Cute, but too young for my tastes.’

‘Not for me, old boy. Not for me.’

He took a sip of his drink. ‘What’s her story then?’

‘See you are interested. It can’t be helped, can it? So her story is – I think – that she hates her father, and her mother doesn’t even know she’s out tonight. She is your classic rebel – and I’m an admirer of such qualities.’

‘You’re a predator, is what you are.’ Vuldon felt the eyes of everyone in the room on him – not helped by the fact that he towered above most people. And he couldn’t help but think it was all a waste, that while refugees were dying outside the city’s gates, people here were planning to drink or sleep their way into forgetting about the ice age.

‘I’m merely being efficient,’ Tane replied.

‘We’re getting enough attention in here as it is,’ Vuldon said. People were gathering around them, young faces smiling, little waves, everyone hoping to catch their eyes – and all for what, helping out citizens in distress?

‘Vuldon, Vuldon, Vuldon,’ Tane laughed. ‘Don’t you ever accept the notion of a challenge?’

‘You complicate life too much, cat-man,’ Vuldon replied, and downed a shot of rum. A curvy brunette sidled up to him and placed her arm on his waist. She said something about liking a hero. Vuldon turned to Tane, but the other Knight was already ploughing a furrow through the throng to his chosen girl.

Well, what harm could it do? he thought, glancing casually at her. It has been a long time. So much for getting to know Tane. ‘Evening, miss.’

*

Lan awoke bleary-eyed, with sunlight bathing her room in hues of orange and pink. She ached, as she did every morning after a night patrolling the city. She had volunteered to go out on her own last night, whilst Vuldon and Tane were permitted a rare evening of relaxation. They’d decided to go out and drink in the taverns on the lower levels of the city and, when she returned at some ungodly hour, they were still out, so she went straight to bed.

Intermittently during the rest of her sleep she heard a distant, female voice.

As she climbed out of bed, the thick blankets and sheets slipped to the floor. Her room was beautiful and minimal, a far cry from the cluttered rooms she had shared with the girls at the circus. Cream sheets and white stone walls, with a marble floor and a vast window overlooking the sea. A table to one side with incense, an elegant wardrobe with geometric mock-M'athema motifs, a small log fire containing only ashes now – though with her augmentations she didn’t feel the cold as much as before.

To have her own space was a luxury she had dreamed about for years. No more having to hide herself, no more self-consciously getting dressed. Aware of being different, every slight detail, every movement, every glance could have opened up terrifying consequences for her. Now that she didn’t actually have to be aware of such things, it didn’t alter the fact that she was able to relax fully, even in her own room, and Lan realized then just how many ghosts from her past were walking alongside her.

Sometimes she felt guilty for having undergone so much of a transformation. She knew of other women who would have killed to have been given her opportunity to match their anatomy with their gender.

She stood naked before a full-length mirror, smiling, a method of reminding herself every morning of who she was. She extended her arms out either side and connected with the powers given to her by the cultists, feeling a vibration deep within her core, as if a strong wind was carving a channel through her insides, and gradually she lifted into the air, hovered a foot above the ground, fine-tuning the sensations.

It was useful for her to do this, to practise using the technology.

Slowly, she lowered herself back to the ground, lost her connections with her body, and felt a sense of deep relaxation. She got dressed into one of her black uniforms, though left the top few buttons undone since they irritated her around the neck. They might make the three of them look like some elite force, but these uniforms annoyed and chafed at times.

As she headed out into the main lounge, Tane’s door opened, and a beautiful young blonde girl tottered out, garbed in what she must have been wearing the night before. She couldn’t have been more than nineteen years old. She was pretty and slender, with thick curls, red lips, dark eye-liner, and a wonderful black dress. Tane beamed at being caught in the act.

Tane picked up her fur coat from one of the chairs outside his room and placed it around her shoulders. The girl peered shyly at Lan, and Tane made a protective, almost patronizing gesture, by placing his arm around her shoulder as he walked her to the door, where she stood on tiptoes to kiss him goodbye.

‘Will I see you again?’ the girl asked.

‘I’ll find you,’ Tane whispered.

One of the sentries on the door ushered her out, and Tane whispered for him to keep a safe eye on her. Just then Feror strolled into the room with as much zest as Tane; though perhaps he achieved his happy state through more honourable means than Tane.

The old, green-cloaked cultist made his usual checks on the Knights whilst a terse conversation raged in the pointed glances exchanged between Lan and Tane. And while Feror began to warble on again about his daughter and his wife, Lan was fit to burst at Tane’s indiscretions.

Eventually, after he seemed satisfied with Tane and Lan’s meagre, one-word answers to his questions, Feror left. Then Tane peered around wearily, strutted back into the room and clasped his hands. ‘So. Breakfast?’

‘You’re not supposed to bring people back here,’ Lan snapped. She was furious. The idiot was jeopardizing their security by showing the girl the way to their sanctuary, but he didn’t seem to give a shit.

‘We’re not jealous, are we?’

‘You’re a dick. You were out chasing women last night then? Glad to know you made the most of your evening off.’

‘On the contrary, dear lady. Those women were chasing us – they love us. We were showing off in some of the bars down on the first and second level – Bohr, I’d never known such attention. I say, being a Knight really does have its perks, doesn’t it?’

‘And as for keeping a low profile?’

‘Well, we must be out there to reassure the public of their safety, so we keep being told.’

‘Not like that.’

‘Our presence was essential, one might say,’ Tane replied, apparently oblivious to any point she made.

‘You’re trying to convince yourself?’ Lan asked. ‘You were just abusing your power so you could be a cheap slut.’

Tane leant back to fold his arms, quite proud of his new moniker. ‘Perhaps I could have that name stitched on the back of my uniform. You think that might work?’

A moment later, Tane’s gaze lurched to the door, his senses heightened. He seemed to sniff the air before relaxing with a smirk. ‘Now it’s your turn.’

‘What?’

‘Your lover boy is here.’

‘What the hell are you on about now?’ Lan frowned, her heart skipping a beat.

A knock on the door and Investigator Fulcrom entered the room, relaxed and well mannered, as always, his tail waving this way and that, elegantly cool.

Tane leant in and whispered, ‘Perhaps you might swoon a little less obviously?’ before walking forwards to Fulcrom. ‘Good morning, investigator. And what news do you bring on this fine morning?’

‘Tane, who was that girl walking out of here?’ Fulcrom enquired.

Just then, Vuldon’s door opened, and the big man escorted two young ladies out, one with brown hair and wide curves, the other skinny with coal-black hair. They, too, were dressed as if they’d just come in from a night out in the city, with fancy clothes and jewels sparkling on their chests. He paraded them nonchalantly through the lounge, completely ignoring the others, guiding them to the exit. ‘See you soon, ladies,’ he mumbled.

‘How on earth did you manage that?’ Tane demanded as Vuldon closed the door. ‘You don’t even have a personality.’

‘Some of us don’t need to yap their way into bed with a woman,’ Vuldon replied coolly.

‘Vuldon,’ Fulcrom snapped. ‘For fucksake. You are not supposed to bring anyone back here. What if one of them works for the anarchists? If you want to bring people back, they must be vetted thoroughly.’

‘I already did that,’ Vuldon grinned. ‘They had nothing to hide.’

‘Oh please . . .’ Lan said.

Fulcrom lowered his face into his hands.

‘Lighten up, old boy,’ Tane said, full of energy. ‘We were heroes down there. People loved us – they love everything we stand for. Whatever the Emperor wanted, it’s working quickly. We really mean something, in such a short space of time. Women kept coming up to us, and men slapped us on the back. We meant something to the people of the city, Fulcrom – it’s intoxicating, so allow us a little fun.’

‘Well, while you were enjoying yourselves,’ Fulcrom said, ‘the rest of us were trying to solve the murders of three members of the city guard – brutal killings, and each of them in plain view of the public.’

‘Oh,’ Tane said.

‘Oh exactly,’ Fulcrom replied.

‘One in front of the library, and two more on the gateways to the third and fourth levels, and there’re still no leads to finding the killers of them or the councillor.’

‘Sorry,’ Tane muttered, ‘but we didn’t hear about them.’

‘Don’t you know any better? The more of a reputation you get, the more you have to lose. You’ve all got a past, things you’d rather weren’t shared about – you’re playing into the Emperor’s hands even further. He wants you to become stars so it binds you further to your job. You’ll be a Knight for life at this rate, no chance to get away from it all when our work is done. How much more vulnerable are you all to being exposed when you’re celebrities?’

Nothing but silence. Fulcrom was right, he was always right.

‘Exactly. Before you had nothing to lose. Now, you’ve much more, and every time you invite people back here, that risk of not only exposure, but of fucking up the efforts of so many people looking to reduce crime, all gets greater.’

‘All right,’ Tane sighed. ‘You’ve made your point.’

Fulcrom paused, and eventually calmed. He took a deep breath. ‘Good. So, while people were busy getting killed yesterday, where precisely were you all?’

‘I was out, but there were only a couple of petty thefts – they were quite open and shut though,’ Lan told him.

‘Open and shut,’ Fulcrom replied. ‘Right.’

‘Do you think I’m lying?’

‘No – it’s just that these petty crimes, they might be an effort to distract you while something bigger’s going on elsewhere in the city.’

‘I didn’t realize,’ Lan replied.

‘It’s OK,’ Fulcrom said. ‘I’m only just working these things out for myself.’

‘You expect us to be everywhere at all times?’ Vuldon remarked bitterly. ‘There are hundreds of thousands of people in this city. We can’t stop every murder.’

‘I’m sure Fulcrom didn’t mean that,’ Lan said.

‘Well, you would take his side, wouldn’t you?’ Vuldon muttered.

Tane mouthed the words ‘Lover boy’ at Lan, and Fulcrom glanced to each of them in confusion.

Lan knew Fulcrom was smart enough to know what was going on, to read the silences, the conversation that wasn’t being spoken here. She felt incredibly awkward and embarrassed and shy, yet there was something about having her affections implied that offered some relief – because she sure as hell wasn’t going to say anything about her growing feelings for the investigator.

‘These murders,’ Vuldon said eventually, ‘what can you tell us?’

‘Each of them were committed in a public location,’ Fulcrom said, sitting on one of the plush settees. ‘Each victim was a soldier in the city guard, on a highly visible location. There was a note by one of the bodies, scrawled by the culprits – who we believe to be the anarchists.’

‘What did it say?’ Lan asked.

‘It said “You put symbols out here, with deeds we will be removing others”.’

‘A retaliation,’ Vuldon declared. He sat next to Fulcrom, his bulk making the investigator look like a child. ‘Which means you – or the Emperor – will want us to retaliate back.’

‘Exactly,’ Fulcrom replied. ‘Because they won’t stop until more people are dead. We’re dealing with a strange psychology here.’

‘What do you want us to do then?’ Lan asked.

‘As soon as you’re all ready, we’re heading into Caveside. The Inquisition has handed over to me the names and addresses of those we think are crime lords of varying effect – those who manage guilds on this side of the city, ones who are known to have their claws reaching deep into the caves. We visit them one by one and see what we can find, see what they know. It’s essential we find Shalev, and the Emperor is growing more demanding by the day.’

‘And if we don’t find her by this method?’ Lan prompted. ‘It seems unlikely a criminal would just hand over an ally.’

‘We try something else. But even if this doesn’t work, we’ll hopefully be able to put the fear into some of Caveside’s shadier characters.’

‘And it’s a chance to visit some old friends,’ Vuldon added, smirking.

Fulcrom reflected on his words. ‘I don’t want anything to get out of hand. No old vendettas.’

‘You forget that my secrets aren’t like yours,’ Vuldon protested. ‘I was framed for something I didn’t do, and I know there were some of these so-called crime lords involved in that, or their families were. I was set up and I—’

‘Want revenge,’ Fulcrom finished. ‘That’s understandable. But for now, Vuldon, please – you have a job to do. Virtually no one remembers what happened since it was covered up by everyone involved. To the public you simply disappeared. You’re just Vuldon now, someone with greater powers and responsibilities. There are several paths you can choose to making amends, and I suggest you simply get on with helping the people of the city.’

‘You’ve a smart answer for everything,’ Vuldon muttered, and Lan couldn’t discern if it was a simple statement or the start of a threat.

‘I’m not concerned with smartness,’ Fulcrom added, ‘just getting the job done.’

*

Fulcrom was in a morose mood as he marched them towards the crime lords. He hoped that Tane and Vuldon were sulking, or reflecting on their deeds. Their excessiveness was to be expected, perhaps, but they needed to know those actions would be a liability. Lan seemed to be the only one he could fully trust, and his fondness for her grew each day. He was drawn to her introversions, to the world of emotions beneath her surface – it made a change from the brashness and arrogance found with many of the investigators.

They wore dark hooded cloaks. Moving through the snow along the fourth level of the city, he watched Lan closely – she walked with an amazing grace, a lightness of step that must have come from her years of acrobatics. They headed down a network of small alleys, where the walls were actually chunks of rock smothered in dripping lichen, and every now and then there would be a small, steamed-up window, sometimes with a face behind pressed up against it. The snow ceased, filling the air with tension and light. Caught on the breeze, a couple of abandoned issues of People’s Observer skittered along the street.

The Knights were silent as they progressed further into what Fulcrom knew to be dubious territory: they arrived at a large, metal door set into a whitewashed wall of an expensive-looking house. It had been constructed so the owners could see over the lower levels of the city: rooftops sparkling in the sunshine, the spires and bridges casting bold shadows and, over the walls, in the distance was nothing but murky tundra, much of it trampled by the passage of refugees.

Standing next to the house were two men, each nearly as tall as Vuldon. Shaven-headed with dark cloaks flapping from their shoulders, each bore the scars of combat, and by each of their sides hung a fat sabre.

‘What can we do for you gents?’ one of them asked gruffly.

‘Three gents and a lady, to be precise.’ Tane indicated Lan, and one of them took a closer look at him. He slid back his hood to reveal his cat-furred face and weird eyes, but the thug didn’t seem concerned. Not even at the sharp claws he’d used to point at Lan.

‘Heard about you lot,’ one man declared. ‘Knights or something or other. Funny costumes, like them MythMaker sketches.’

‘That’s right, the Villjamur Knights, and I’m Investigator Fulcrom of the Inquisition. We’re here to have a word with Delandro.’

Vuldon glared at Fulcrom then, and the rumel turned away. ‘I didn’t know he was still alive,’ Vuldon hissed.

The two thugs consulted each other, and one went inside while the rest of them stood in silence. Vuldon seemed to be in the grips of a barely contained rage.

The first thug returned and bid them enter and the Knights followed.

*

Every bit the signature of a man who had more money than taste, it was a dark yet garish abode, with gold-leaf cressets, black-painted wood, wide arches, full-length mirrors and erotic paintings. Each room was larger than Fulcrom’s own apartment, and smelled of some expensive fragrance.

They were escorted into an antechamber with a skylight shadowed by snow. A handful of logs burned in the huge central fireplace. A frail-looking man shuffled into the room, wearing a dark-green robe with neat stitching, a simple, costly elegance that was fitting for an emperor. He moved silently to the fire, where his bodyguard helped him into a large wooden chair akin to a throne. He remained there, the light of the fire warming one half of his face and casting the other half in darkness.

Tane leaned into Fulcrom and whispered, ‘This is one of the most violent men in the city? He doesn’t look like he’s capable of wiping his own behind.’

‘His power is all in his wealth,’ Fulcrom breathed. ‘He funds organized crime – though that’s something we’ve never been able to prove.’

‘Enough of this whispering.’ Delandro cleared his throat and continued in a frail voice. ‘What brings these famous celebrities to my house?’

‘We were wondering if you could help the Inquisition with some enquiries,’ Fulcrom said.

‘And you bring these – ’ Delandro raised a hand to gesture wildly at the others ‘ – enhanced thugs for added persuasion.’

‘It wouldn’t be all that different from your own business operation, now would it?’ Fulcrom challenged. ‘The deals which you’ve done with your men’s hands around people’s throats? Intimidation and bullying? The deception, the theft?’

‘You can prove nothing, investigator. Besides, I have friends in the Council who will vouch for my clean record.’

That was true, and didn’t Fulcrom know it.

‘This one, the brute, he looks familiar.’ Delandro indicated Vuldon, who was loitering in the shadows, by one of the paintings.

Fulcrom could hear Vuldon’s heavy breath even from this distance. He could sense the tension. ‘You met him in a previous life,’ Fulcrom said. ‘You probably remember his old name, though.’

‘I’m not so sure.’

‘The Legend,’ Fulcrom replied.

Delandro was visibly taken aback and examined Vuldon with cautious interest. ‘Oh.’

‘Oh indeed, fucker,’ Vuldon growled, stepping out of the shadows.

Whether or not Delandro felt any remorse, he didn’t reveal it. ‘I believe the Inquisition were also implicit in your demise,’ the old man offered, his tone radically changed to one of reason.

‘True,’ Vuldon replied, ‘but you’re the cunt who made sure the events panned out in their favour. Your men rigged that wall, your men set up the false crime so that I’d turn up – because you wanted rid of me too.’

Delandro sighed. For the first time in his measly existence of lies and corruption, he spoke a truth: ‘I’m old, I have no reason to hide parts of history where you’re concerned. The Council needed help. I was told Emperor Johynn wanted rid of you because you had uncovered evidence that Johynn had in fact killed his own father Gulion to claim the throne. You were ready to expose that, so they set you up. It was that simple, and I’m sure if you make enquiries through official channels, you will still find that no one will let you press the issue any further.’

‘Why kill those children?’ Vuldon should have been enraged, but there was a break in his voice. ‘Sixteen kids died because that wall collapsed on them – that was set-up by your men, and timed so that I would be there – too late to do anything about it, but right on time so that I could be set up for supposedly knocking down the wall. There was no escaping it.’

‘You were offered retirement in exchange for keeping everything quiet,’ Delandro said. ‘Or that was the plan. You kept your reputation intact where possible, and so did the Emperor. It worked out best for all concerned – it was a simple business transaction. The children . . . yes, that was a tragedy admittedly. But sometimes we must make tough decisions.’

‘You ruined so many lives,’ Vuldon murmured.

Fulcrom knew what happened to Vuldon next: the fall from grace, the spiral of depression, the alcohol and drugs and his wife choking on her own vomit after a drinking binge. The Legend fading into legend.

Fulcrom couldn’t bear to watch Vuldon like this for much longer. ‘Shalev,’ he said. ‘We’re looking for Shalev. You must have heard of her in your circles, surely?’

‘Ah, yes, our anarchist queen.’

‘You know her?’ Fulcrom pressed. ‘Have you met with her?’

‘Do you honestly think you can all waltz in here simply for me to tell you these things?’ Delandro chuckled.

‘We can give you money,’ Fulcrom offered.

‘Fuck your money,’ Delandro spat. ‘I have all the money I need.’

Fulcrom signalled to Vuldon; Vuldon lurched towards Delandro. One of thugs came in out of the darkness to intercept him, but Vuldon turned lashed out, shattering the man’s jaw, then delivered a blow to the stomach, hunching him over. Vuldon grabbed the scruff of his neck and slammed him down on a table right in front of Delandro. The wood exploded as the thug collapsed on the ground.

Delandro sneered at the ruined table and the stilled body. Four more bodyguards in red tunics stumbled into the room and, in the dull light of the fire, the Knights spun to challenge them.

It happened quickly, in the firelight, and in relative quiet. As the bodyguards drew their swords and lunged forward, Tane raked his claws across one man’s face with two further blows to the side of his head and he was down. Meanwhile, Lan leapt, hovered then kicked at another – first a blow to his arm sending his sword clattering to the ground, then to his stomach. As he doubled over she grabbed a vase and exploded it on his head – he collapsed pathetically.

As the action continued, Fulcrom strolled nonchalantly closer to the now-panicking Delandro.

‘Impressive, aren’t they,’ Fulcrom commented calmly.

‘They’re monsters,’ Delandro told him as he watched Vuldon put down another two attackers with ease. The Knights turned their attention to Delandro, and waited for Fulcrom’s word.

‘I have done nothing wrong, no crime,’ Delandro spluttered, sitting back in his chair, then laughing awkwardly. ‘Please, you would not hurt an old man.’

Vuldon lunged forward but Fulcrom held out a palm. ‘We’ve no reason to hurt you at all – well, Vuldon has, of course. Just tell us what you know of Shalev and we’ll be on our way.’

‘In all honesty, I know nothing.’ The old man stared glumly into the fire, before resting his head in his hands. ‘She comes to this city, she gets the proletariat on her side. It makes things difficult for businessmen of my standing.’

‘I get it,’ Fulcrom said. ‘You mean people from the caves, they’ve no need for your types of crime when they’re working for her.’

‘Crime, indeed,’ Delandro muttered. ‘Where I once gave hardworking men and women in my employ food and drink, trinkets and coin, she now provides them with such things for free. I hear she has done things to grow food in the darkness, and it is in plentiful supply. I hear they have no need for coin with her ways. If they have their desires met they do not wish to work for me. How can I compete with that? In what ways can I tempt them? No, I am done with it all. I have enough, and I am too old for this game now.’

There was nothing for them here, no new information. ‘Let’s move on,’ Fulcrom announced.

‘I’ll follow you out in a moment,’ Vuldon said, looking down at Delandro.

‘Don’t abuse your powers, Vuldon,’ Fulcrom warned.

‘I won’t abuse my powers,’ he replied, pushing his fist into his palm. ‘I just need a quiet word with an old friend.’

Fulcrom knew what might happen, but felt that, all things considered Vuldon probably deserved this time. Turning reluctantly away, Fulcrom steered the others out of the house.

*

Outside in the wintry chill, Tane and Lan discussed what Vuldon had been through – it was as if they had a new understanding for him, and that pleased Fulcrom.

Vuldon joined them a couple of minutes later, leaving the door to the property ajar. Tane peered inside then quickly turned back.

‘What did you do to him?’ Fulcrom asked, shivering in the wind.

‘Told you,’ Vuldon replied calmly. ‘I had a quiet word, is all.’

‘Have you finally released all those years of suppressed anger?’ Tane offered.

Vuldon glared at him. ‘If you’d been through what I have, because of that man, you wouldn’t hold back.’

‘Fair enough,’ Tane replied, looking away. ‘My apologies.’

‘Did you kill him?’ Lan whispered.

‘He’s alive,’ Vuldon snapped, pulling up his hood. ‘Let’s just leave it at that. So, where to next, investigator?’

*

The Knights stood dumbstruck at the sight of Caveside. Apart from Vuldon, Fulcrom realized that, like much of the outer half of the city, the other two Knights had never visited the underbelly of Villjamur.

Despite its underground location, the place was bright, with light from the sky above channelled through strips, and down the underside of the massive cavern and adjoining catacombs, that were the under-city. Ancient, cultist-crafted glass captured light in a central hub and distributed it. This architectural magic meant that the people down here could dwell in almost similar lighting to the grand city of tier after tier of Imperial glory on the outside.

From their position of height, entering from the third level of the city, they could see across the buildings.

‘Place still looks fucked-up,’ Vuldon said. ‘Like a god vomited a hundred styles of buildings on top of each other.’

From Underground North to East, there were two-, three- and four-storey houses, in clusters and scattered randomly, and the rest of the miles-wide indoor plain comprised of crude stone constructs or half-arsed metal-and-wood shacks. Some houses were weirdly decorated, with marbles or shards of glass pressed into surfaces. They were utilitarian structures, for warmth, shelter – not things of beauty. There was nothing grand here, no styles to be proud of. Washing lines hung between some of the taller buildings, underneath which children played and mangy dogs and cats chased one another. And weirder things dwelled in the underground, animals that cultists had messed with, half-bred with lizards and birds and creatures that should not dwell on land.

A heady fug of chimney smoke formed a layer near the top of the cavern, like an artificial cloud. Down to one side, the underground docks were restless as tiny boats ventured along the long, thin channels to the sea.

People milled around the streets, talking, even occasionally laughing. Certainly more life than Fulcrom could ever remember, which surprised him, because the place had never been exactly vibrant. There had to be two, maybe three hundred thousand people living down here and further into the catacombs, but the surveys seldom stretched that far. It was difficult to tell how big these underground tunnels reached. They’d been gradually expanding for centuries.

Shalev is out there. Someone here has to know where she’s hiding.

*

For the hours they spent patrolling the Caveside populace, the Knights caused a hum of discontent to arise. From underground dens to the corners of dubious taverns, the group trawled major venues but found only the dregs of humanity. Under the Emperor’s instruction they marched brazenly, openly, making their presence known, so that those who had something to hide would be fearful.

They kicked down doors and slammed suspects up against the walls of empty taverns. In dark alleys there were quick and futile retaliations at the heroes of the city stirring up trouble; and it was followed by brutal punishments from the Knights – or at least Tane and Vuldon. Lan sometimes looked away, choosing to fight only when challenged.

Again and again, Fulcrom interrogated known leaders of the criminal underworld, whilst Lan, Tane and Vuldon took care of the physical work.

Fulcrom repeated himself: ‘Where was Shalev hiding?’

A partial drunk: ‘You can’t fucken come here doin’ this, fuckers.’

A squat lady who dealt in knives: ‘Fuck should I know where she is?’

An ex-tribal thug: ‘Yer get the people under ’ere angry, they’ll come ta get yer.’

A refined gentleman who had fallen on hard times: ‘You’re simply not welcome around these parts. Push these people too hard and they will come for you – because if you know where to look you will see they are ready to claim their city back.’

Fulcrom’s frustration grew by the hour, and even the Knights began to sense the futility of their endeavours. No one seemed to know anything or wanted to give any details on Shalev. Each time a lead proved useless, Fulcrom closed his eyes and pictured having to tell the Emperor about the lack of progress. Threats, bribery, even Vuldon’s less than subtle techniques resulted in nothing. The people down here had hope now, Shalev had given them that and in return they gave her their loyalty.

It was no surprise that the Cavesiders weren’t going to hand her in, no matter how hard they were pushed.

*

Fulcrom had to admit: things weren’t as bad as he remembered around here. It didn’t smell as rancid, and there weren’t as many people living on the streets – no, in fact, there was no one living on the streets, and there were few signs of the poverty he was used to.

Suspiciously, they found carts full of vegetables: carrots, courgettes, potatoes. How did they get hold of such items, when the prices were phenomenally high in the outer city? When Fulcrom quizzed the owner of one such cart, a chipper old fellow with a beard, the man replied, ‘We grow them ourselves, mate. Got a few cultists helping us out, let us grow crops in all manner of ways.’

‘I’d like to meet these cultists,’ Fulcrom said.

‘You and me both!’ the man laughed. ‘They never show themselves, we just get the seeds from ’em anonymously. I ain’t complaining, though – just like to thank ’em, is all.’

One last unpleasant surprise came as the Knights finally called it a day and started heading upside, strolling along one of the main streets that eventually connected with the first level of the outer city. Behind were thirty, perhaps forty men and women from Caveside marching peacefully in unison, shadowing them, but now and then someone would shout out insults.

‘Likes of you ain’t welcome here.’

‘You should stop pestering us, we’s done nothing to deserve rough treatment like this.’

‘You Knights should get away from us.’

They don’t understand, Fulcrom thought, yes things are tough, but they have a psychopathic killer living amongst them, someone who makes life hell for the decent, law-abiding citizens of the outer city. This is what makes the job hell.

Vuldon turned to confront them, but Lan and Tane both restrained him.

‘Calm down,’ Tane soothed.

Some of the Cavesiders formed a silent line and stood their ground as if to challenge them. Vuldon turned to Fulcrom, who merely shook his head. This was a situation that could get very ugly, and he did not want to turn the Knights against the populace on so large a scale. Perhaps he had been insensitive to the new underground culture, but he was stunned that they had formed enough spirit to stand together like this, and so peacefully.

‘I think we should go,’ Lan said.

‘I agree. This isn’t our kind of battle,’ Fulcrom said, turning to walk away. ‘This is not our front line.’


NINETEEN | The Book of Transformations | TWENTY-ONE



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